Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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Pregnant Women Shouldn’t Have To Carry America’s Obesity Epidemic, Too

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There’s a growing body of research on how obesity can be ‘programmed’ in the womb—and a growing campaign to thwart America’s obesity ‘epidemic’ by targeting pregnant women. I’m all for public health agendas aimed at increasing maternal and fetal health. But the trend toward blaming obesity rates on women’s choices is worrying—don’t pregnant women have enough to think about without being responsible, literally, for the weight of the nation?

Melinda Sothern, a professor of clinical exercise at Louisiana State University, doesn’t quite blame pregnant women themselves for today’s high obesity rates—it was “the evil ’50s,” she told The Los Angeles Times, an era when doctors often advised pregnant women against gaining more than 10 pounds but said nothing about quitting smoking. The new moms and mothers-to-be of 1950s America smoked, dieted during pregnancy and spurned breast-feeding—what Sothern calls “the obesity trinity.” Inadequate fetal nutrition can program babies to ‘catch up’ on growth as infants, which studies suggest increases the risk of later obesity. Smoking during pregnancy is also thought to increase obesity risk in children, because nicotine interferes with the body’s control of appetite, metabolic rate and fat storage. And formula-fed babies have a higher risk for becoming obese than breast-fed babies.

I think this is all very interesting, and important in terms of figuring out what behaviors and habits doctors should recommend to pregnant women. I’m glad folks are conducting research on these topics, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about it. But it’s framing pregnant women as “the root” of America’s obesity problems that I find troubling. Here’s how the LAT described Sothern’s theory:

… the tide of obesity that has swept the nation in the last two decades had its roots in what young mothers did, or didn’t do, in the postwar, suburban-sprouting 1950s.

If she’s right — and evidence is stacking up on her side — reproductive-age women may become the central focus of efforts to reverse America’s fat problem.

Oh my. Obesity in our society (as Sothern acknowledges) has myriad causes—fast food, convenience food, decreased physical activity—many of which developed alongside changing maternal habits in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Obesity rates may have began soaring in the 1980s due partly to mothers’ smoking, diet and lack-of-breast-feeding, but they had a lot of help from other areas.

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Written by Elizabeth

May 8, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Posted in The Best Things

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