Getting to the Root of Childhood Obesity

Getting to the Root of Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is a growing epidemic in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children and adolescents who are obese has more than tripled since the 1970s. Many factors contribute to childhood obesity, including genetics, diet, physical activity and socioeconomic status.

OU Health Harold Hamm Diabetes Center (HHDC) faculty members have begun to uncover some of the most important physiological processes underlying childhood obesity and diabetes risk. The first 1,000 days – identified as one of the HHDC 3 pathways to a cure – begins at conception through two years of age, and what happens during this time can set a child on the course of health or disease. This groundbreaking research seeks to get to the root of childhood obesity to prevent and cure childhood obesity and diabetes.

The First 1,000 Days: Understanding the Origin of Childhood Obesity

Half of childhood obesity occurs by age 5, which supports research findings that have uncovered some of the most important physiological processes underlying childhood obesity and diabetes risk. During the first 1,000 days, maternal nutrition and microbiome influence the development, structure and function of the fetal tissues and organs and also determines the infant microbiome and future health or predisposition to obesity and diabetes.

The strong association between maternal diet and obesity/diabetes and childhood obesity is of particular concern because nearly 70% of American women enter pregnancy either overweight or obese, and up to 30% of pregnant women develop gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM). If the mother is overweight or obese or develops gestational diabetes, there is a greater risk of this condition contributing to metabolic risk in the child.This creates a vicious, detrimental cycle of intrauterine transmission of metabolic disease from the mother to her children.

Researchers at HHDC work to determine how nutritional exposures beginning in mothers affect a child's predisposition to disease during the first 1,000 days and how to interrupt cross-generational cycles of obesity and diabetes by preventing or reversing these triggers.

Groundbreaking Research Has Potential to Stop Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that can start children on the path to health problems — that were once considered adult health conditions — like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and non-fatty liver disease.

Jed Friedman, Ph.D., director of the OU Health Harold Hamm Diabetes Center and Chickasaw Professor of Physiology at the OU Health Sciences Center College of Medicine, is leading a study that seeks to understand how maternal obesity and a high-fat diet alter the microbiome and development of a child’s immune system to be predisposed to obesity and diabetes.

With the new understanding of the infant microbiome and its development, we can solve these challenges with major, lasting change.​​

Are Some Children More at Risk for Obesity?

Childhood obesity is a growing problem in developed countries. But are some children more at risk for obesity than others?

Several factors can increase a child's risk for obesity. These include having obese parents, being born into a low-income family (which can make it difficult to access healthy food), and having certain medical conditions. Certain lifestyle choices can also increase a child's risk for obesity, such as a lack of physical activity and a poor diet.

While all children are at risk for obesity, some that are more susceptible than others. By understanding the factors contributing to obesity, we can help ensure that all children have a healthy future.

Consequences of Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is a serious problem that can have many negative consequences. Obesity can lead to severe health conditions, including non-insulin-dependent diabetes, cardiovascular problems, bronchial asthma, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), hypertension, hepatic steatosis, gastroesophageal reflux (GER) and psychosocial issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and lower self-reported quality of life. There are also social problems, such as bullying and the stigma associated with obesity.

Breaking the Cycle of Childhood Obesity

Exciting HHDC research proves it’s possible to proactively prevent health issues associated with obesity rather than retroactively trying to reverse them. Families can take steps to prevent childhood obesity even before the child is born or conceived. HHDC research provides an exciting opportunity to understand how to prevent or reverse the development of chronic childhood health conditions that have adverse health effects and continue through adulthood. This research shows that the mother's health and diet predetermine a child's propensity for obesity and associated health conditions like diabetes during the first 1,000 days.

Instill Healthy Lifestyle Habits in the First 1,000 Days

Eating healthy and staying active are two foundational pieces to a healthy lifestyle, and it’s never too late to start. In addition, staying within a healthy weight range will positively affect your or your child's life and future offspring.

It’s critical to examine the consequences of maternal diet on infant intrauterine and postnatal development, along with providing community resources to help families instill healthy habits from an early age.

Talk to your OU Health doctor about how you can take control of your health before conceiving, or if you’ve already had a child, how you can help yourself, your child, and your family live a healthy lifestyle. Take advantage of the healthy pediatric weight management programs available to you through Oklahoma Children’s Hospital OU Health, such as Healthy Futures Program in Oklahoma City and Early Lifestyle Intervention Program in Tulsa.