In the US, the rate of childhood obesity has more than doubled over the past 3 decades. But in a new study, researchers from the University of Southampton in the UK say they have identified a number of risk factors that, if modified early, could prevent childhood obesity.

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The team found that at the age of 6 years, children who had four or five early-life risk factors had a 47% higher fat mass and were 4.65 times more likely to be overweight or obese than those with no risk factors.

The research team, led by Prof. Siân M. Robinson of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton, publishes their findings in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Childhood obesity has become a major public health concern in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of obesity among children aged 6-11 years increased from 8% in 1980 to 18% in 2012, while the percentage of obese adolescents aged 12-19 increased from 5% to almost 21% in the same period.

And with an increase in childhood obesity comes a rise in related medical conditions among children, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol – major risk factors for heart disease and stroke. A 2007 survey of 5-17-year-olds found that around 70% who were obese had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

But what can be done to reduce prevalence of childhood obesity? Past studies have indicated that certain factors in a child’s early life may influence their likelihood of becoming obese later in life. In October 2013, for example, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting excessive weight gain during pregnancy may raise the risk of obesity in offspring.

In this latest study, however, Prof. Robinson and her team wanted to assess how a combination of previously documented early-life risk factors affect a child’s risk of later-life obesity.

Among 991 mother and child pairs who were a part of the Southampton Women’s Survey, the team assessed the effects of five early-life risk factors that have been associated with childhood obesity: obesity, excess weight gain, smoking and low vitamin D levels during a mother’s pregnancy, and short breastfeeding duration (less than 1 month) after birth.

The researchers found that only 148 (15%) of the children had no early-life risk factors for childhood obesity, while 330 (33%) had one risk factor, 296 (30%) had two, 160 (16%) had three and 57 (6%) had four or five.

When the children were 4 years of age, the researchers found that those with four or five early-life risk factors had a 19% higher fat mass and were were 3.99 times more likely to be overweight or obese than those who had no risk factors.

When the children were 6 years old, the team found that those who had four or five early-life risk factors had a 47% higher fat mass and were 4.65 times more likely to be overweight or obese than those with no risk factors.

Prof. Robinson says these findings indicate that “interventions to prevent obesity need to start earlier, even before conception, and that having a healthy body weight and not smoking at this time could be key.”

Study co-author Cyrus Cooper, director of the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, adds:

The large differences in the risk of being overweight in childhood that were shown in this study highlight the importance of early-life risk factors.

These findings could have important implications for obesity prevention policy and will help us to design future interventions aimed at optimizing body composition, with benefits for lifelong health.”

MNT recently reported on a study published in Psychological Science, in which researchers suggested that teenagers who falsely believe they are overweight may be at increased risk of obesity in adulthood.