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Overweight? Blame Your Mother's Pregnancy!

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Guest blogger Kate Tuttle:Great news! Now there's something else you can blame on your mom .... It turns out that lifelong struggles with weight can begin before we're even born! New research suggests that obesity, far from being a by-product of the choices you make regarding eating and exercising -- or even genetic factors -- may stem from mothers gaining too much weight while pregnant, which apparently tips off a cascading hormonal effect that leads to babies beingprogrammed to be fat.

Weighing scale
Veteran science reporter Jane Brody, writing in the New York Times, bemoaned the current trend toward mothers gaining ever more weight during pregnancy (and therefore producing bigger newborns). The statistics apparently say that larger babies are primed to become larger adults. It's a good thing, everyone agrees, that we no longer expect women to diet (and smoke!) throughout pregnancy in hopes of keeping their weight gain modest. (In the '60s, it was common for a woman to try hard to gain only 15 pounds, and a lot of babies were therefore a lot smaller.) Nobody wants to go back to those days, but Brody and others question the move toward an "anything goes" pregnancy-weight policy -- particularly when so many women conceive while already overweight or obese.

Although the guidlelines have been in place for a while, apparently fewer than 40 percent of pregnant women are able to fit within them. Just as a refresher, doctors recommend the following pregnancy weight-gain ranges: Twenty-eight to 40 pounds for thin women (those with a BMI of 18.5 or lower); 25 to 35 pounds for normal-weight women (those with a BMI of 18.6 to 24.9); 15 to 25 pounds for overweight women (those with a BMI of 25 to 29.9) and 11 to 20 pounds for obese women (those with a BMI of 30 or higher).

I agree that these are useful guidelines, and I know that we need to get a handle on obesity in this country. Still, I'm not sure I completely buy what these studies are selling. My own pediatrician was thrilled at our baby's high birthweight (after making certain that gestational diabetes wasn't the cause of it). As he grew and settled into his current slightly-below-average size, she pointed out that a baby's size in the womb has everything to do with the environment there, while his size as he grows is linked to a combination of genetics and lifestyle.

I've met plenty of overweight and obese people who were tiny babies. So while I don't doubt the facts being reported, I'm not certain how they translate into useful advice for all moms and moms-to-be out there. Having known plenty of women who agonized over the regular weigh-ins during their pregnancies (because of past histories of eating disorders or lifelong battles with weight or body-image issues), I think it's crucial that doctors and other caregivers present this message with the utmost care and sensitivity. Women don't set out to gain too much weight during pregnancy (or ever!), and making them feel guilty about it is the last thing that could possibly help.

As for those who might now view their own adult weight problems differently in light of their mothers' pregnancies, I worry that such a message conveys a fatalism that isn't very helpful, either. It's important to accept the body types we're born with, but it's also crucial that we realize how much power we have to make our bodies healthier and stronger through making good life choices.

Does finding out that your weight problems (or lack thereof) may have been set in motion before you were born make it more likely that you'll get to the gym today -- or less?

next: Parenting the Defiant Child
15 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous September 22, 2010, 5:27 PM

I don’t believe it. The people who are obese now had mothers who didn’t gain that much during pregnancy. I think putting pressure on obese women to not gain too much could add stress and result in bad eating patterns, maybe even weight gain. It has to be handled carefully.

Stacie September 22, 2010, 9:20 PM

When I was pregnant, my OB weighed me at every appointment—but never said anything about my weight gain. There was never any discussion about how much I’d gained or how much I should gain, except when I asked once in my second trimester. I gained a total of 40 lbs, which is well above the recommendation, but never did my OB say anything at all. I think that doctors avoid saying anything to patients about this issue because they don’t want to hurt our feelings…but I’d rather that they actually be a doctor and stop trying to be our friends.

pregnancy miracle September 23, 2010, 1:38 AM

Women are so different in body shape and size these days that weight gain in pregnancy cannot be considered normal or otherwise…it’s too difficult to group all of us together and then say that one is too fat and putting on too much weight, and another is not…let’s just focus on doing the right thing in pregnancy, feeding our body and baby the right nutrition so that our baby has the best possible start to life…

KS September 23, 2010, 11:03 AM

There needs to be more comprehensive research before I’ll buy this. What you eat while pregnant is much more important than keeping track of the scale. I had four normal size to large size babies. My last one was 9 pounds 1 ounce. I only gained 35 pounds during my pregnancy and had a healthy diet. None of my children are overweight and we still eat what we want until we are full. The thing is we eat good food that isn’t highly processed.

You know nobody asked me with any of my four pregnancies what types of food I was eating and how much. Until they truly ask every last woman very intimate details about her life and then keep track of the children long term they really can’t say for a fact. Besides the food choices we all make daily is what has the largest impact on our health and weight.

Anon October 1, 2010, 8:20 AM

Yeah I’m not sure about this either. My mom is obese, and one sister is super skinny while the other is even bigger than my mom. I’m very thin. Go figure.

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