In a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, researchers at Mount Sinai’s Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute provide new data that show breastfeeding can help reduce a child’s risk for obesity. Almost a third of Canadian children aged five to 17 are overweight or obese, according to Statistics Canada.
With collaborators in Australia, Dr. Laurent Briollais, principal investigator of the study, his postdoctoral student, Dr. Taraneh Abarin, and Dr. Stephen Lye, reveal that the length of time a baby is breastfed positively impacts the effects of the fat mass and obesity gene (FTO) in young adults. The study followed children in Western Australia from birth to 14 years of age.
For years, body mass index (BMI) has been used by scientists to track weight problems and obesity in children and adults. Previous studies have connected a common variant of the FTO gene to increased risk of obesity in young adults. This study finds that breastfeeding can help reverse the effects of the FTO gene variant if a child is exclusively breastfed for at least three months.
“Childhood obesity is a serious problem, and it will likely impact chronic diseases in the long-term, as well as increased health care costs,” says Dr. Briollais, Senior Investigator with the Lunenfeld and also Assistant Professor with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of
Toronto. “The benefits of breast milk are well known. However, what is new, is to find that breastfeeding can have a significant impact on children who have a genetic predisposition to obesity.”
An estimated 70 per cent of children in Canada possess at least one copy of the specific variant of the FTO gene responsible for increased BMI and obesity. The increase in BMI in children affected by this gene is seen as early as six years.
“This study is one of the first examples of early intervention in the fight against obesity,” says Dr. Stephen Lye, Associate Director of the Lunenfeld and also the Executive Director of the Fraser Mustard Institute for Health Development at the University of Toronto. “Rather than trying to treat the symptoms later, we’re better off trying to prevent them in the first place.”
The study was supported with funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and The Alva Foundation.