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Do fat babies grow into fat adults?

Combating obesity needs to start young, advises Dr. Judith Reichman
/ Source: TODAY

Q: I've noticed a lot of fat babies lately. Will they become fat adults? Is this trend cute or worrisome?

A: A recent Harvard study of more than 120,000 children enrolled in Massachusetts health maintenance organizations found that the prevalence of being overweight and obese among healthy, middle class kids under the age of six increased by a whooping 59 percent between 1980 and 2000. There was an even greater jump when it came to babies – it increased by 74 percent in infants younger than six months.

This baby fat may look cute, but other studies have shown that infants may not outgrow their adiposity and end up becoming overweight children, adolescents, and adults. One study found that a child that met the criteria of being overweight as defined by a BMI (basal mass index) above the 85th percentile at least once between the ages of two and four was five times more likely to be overweight at age 12 compared to a child who wasn’t overweight. This is not an “oh he or she will outgrow it” problem; these kids are at risk for serious health disorders such as high blood pressure, respiratory illnesses, and early onset of type 2 diabetes. They're also more likely to be overweight adults, with the added risks of certain cancers, heart disease, arthritis, and ultimately a shortened life.

To make matters worse, it appears that our growth charts are also overweight and that we may be excessive in our standards of what's considered “ normal”. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently introduced new growth standards that put into question the standards we've been using in the U.S. These charts are based on growth data compiled for 8,500 children from six diverse countries (India, Brazil, Ghana, Oman, Norway, and the U.S.). The children were selected based on recommended feeding practices, nutrition, and health care. Ideal feeding for infants comprises exclusive (or predominant) breastfeeding for the first four to six months and continued complementary breastfeeding for at least one year.

The WHO compiled weight-for-age, length/height-for-age, weight-for-length/height, and BMI-for-age charts for children up to the age of five. Separate curves were created for boys and girls (since they gain weight differently). When U.S. babies are evaluated based on the WHO curves, even more fall into the overweight category when compared to the growth charts used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So we and our babies may be doing worse in the weight category than we originally thought. There's a possibility that the U.S. will adopt the new WHO standards and that pediatricians throughout the country will use these charts, reflecting the true size of the problem.

So no, fat babies aren't just “too cute”. I advise moms who want to breastfeed their babies and add supplemental feeding as late as possible. Breastfed babies are less likely to gain excess weight. And if you can’t follow this directive (and many Moms can’t), don’t use formula or food as a pacifier. Discuss your baby’s nutrition with a physician who will help you determine the appropriate caloric intake for your infant so she or he will attain the height and weight that is appropriate for future health .

Dr. Reichman’s Bottom Line: Combating obesity needs to start from early infancy. Too much baby fat can increase the risk of your child becoming fat later in life.

Dr. Judith Reichman, the TODAY show's medical contributor on women's health, has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for more than 20 years. You will find many answers to your questions in her latest book, "Slow Your Clock Down: The Complete Guide to a Healthy, Younger You," which is now available in paperback. It is published by William Morrow, a division of .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.