Mom's Lifestyle and Child's Obesity: Five Ways to Reduce Risk

Health Writer

There’s a saying, “You are what you eat.” A July 2018 British Medical Journal study suggests that your children are what you eat, too. The lifestyle that mom chooses to follow just before and during her pregnancy may raise the risk that her offspring will develop obesity.

For a long time, decades in fact, many women threw caution to the wind upon hearing they were pregnant, delightfully engaging in a mindset of indulging for nine months since they were going to gain weight anyway. Many obstetricians, not wanting to pressure these moms-to-be, essentially offered light guidance regarding diet and exercise but for the most part seemed to recognize that many of their patients would gain significant amounts of weight and then “just deal with it” after pregnancy.

It’s become clear that what a mother is eating will guide development in utero. If mom gained excess weight, it was also recognized that risks like preeclampsia could occur, putting both mom and baby at risk. As medicine has caught up to science and sensibilities, it’s not surprising to learn that current research suggests that a mother’s lifestyle practices may raise the risk of obesity in her child.

In this study, lifestyle parameters included BMI, diet, regular exercise, smoking and alcohol habits, and “healthy” lifestyle. The metrics were defined as a BMI less than 25, high quality diet, regular exercise, no smoking and very light or no alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

The study involved 25,000 children whose mothers adhered to the five healthy pillars described above. The study findings included:

  1. Children born to these healthy mothers had an overall 75 percent lower risk for obesity compared to children born to mothers who didn’t adhere to any of these healthy habits. Those children with a ‘high-risk lifestyle” set of habits in childhood, still had a 45 percent lower risk of developing obesity when mom had followed healthy habits during pregnancy.
  2. Overall childhood obesity risk remained low even if the children maintained poor lifestyle habits (at least during the period of observation).
  3. Children saw the lowest risk of obesity when their mom maintained these five healthy habits during pregnancy and they also followed a healthy lifestyle.
  4. The largest single factor that modulated offspring risk for obesity was mother’s maternal weight or BMI during the pregnancy – a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9.
  5. Mother’s healthy diet during pregnancy seemed to have lowest risk of association with obesity risk in offspring.

Some of the data in this study was also obtained from the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS), which involved children born to 17,000 mothers followed for five years. This was started in 1996 and recruited the children of participants in the Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term research program that has provided nutrition and lifestyle data sets to a number of independent research projects.

The 2018 study used self-reported questionnaires, which are limited by patients' ability to recall information and their honesty level. Another limitation in the study was the lack of paternal lifestyle habit information, which could also exert a level of influence on offspring. Still, there is much to be learned from the findings.

Many of us struggle to lose weight or to improve our health because there seems to be such a long and never-ending list of habits that we need to embrace or change. If we can focus on these five specific habits that prospective mothers should follow, it may help limit childhood obesity and other long term risks.

Consider adopting the following five habits if you are even thinking of becoming pregnant, or if you just found out you are pregnant:

  1. Eat a healthy diet: Limit processed foods and consume lots of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins (mostly plant-based, fish, beans, seeds, legumes), portion-controlled amounts of whole grains, fat free fortified dairy products and small amounts of healthy fats (nuts and nut butters, avocado, flaxseed).
  2. Exercise regularly: If you are already exercising, keep up your routine. Discuss maximal heart rates that you should monitor during exercise. If you don’t exercise, begin a walking program and a light weight-training program. Maintain a healthy weight: Follow the recommended weight gain guidelines for pregnancy based on your current weight. If you are diagnosed with obesity, you may want to lose weight before you get pregnant.
  3. Keep a healthy body weight: If you are diagnosed with obesity and get pregnant, the recommendation from your obstetrician may be to gain little if any weight. This is to protect you and your growing baby during pregnancy. If you have a BMI over 25, then again, you may want to lose weight before getting pregnant.
  4. Not smoking: Smoking can cause a variety of complications for your growing baby including premature birth, having a low birth weight, and raises the risk of SIDS. Based on this new study, it may also raise the risk of childhood obesity.
  5. Limiting alcohol or not drinking: There is no no known safe use of level of alcohol during pregnancy. There are a number of health consequences from drinking during pregnancy. This latest childhood obesity complication is further reason to give up any drinking during pregnancy.