It is possible to accurately predict whether a baby is at risk of becoming an obese 10-year-old by scoring a range of factors from weight to family circumstances, according to researchers.
Treating obesity is so difficult, said Tanja Vrijkotte, an associate professor at the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam, that midwives, nurses or doctors should intervene as early as possible, using the predictor tool to warn parents their baby could be at risk and supporting them to provide healthy food and activity.
“I think we should focus on prevention, for children to become healthy adults,” she said at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow.
In the Netherlands, children are assessed for being overweight at the age of two, at which time families may be offered help, Vrijkotte said. “But I think we should start earlier and use these kind of tools to discuss it with the parents. They can make parents aware that it is fine and there’s nothing going wrong, but your child has an increased risk,” she added.
The team looked at data on 17 predictors of obesity from a large study called Amsterdam-born children and their development. Studying the outcomes of nearly 8,000 children, they found information on 12 of those factors was enough to make a 70% accurate prediction of which babies would become obese by the age of 10 to 12.
Weight for length over the first six months of life, birth weight and gender were all predictors, and so were some measures related to deprivation, which included the mother’s education and, in Amsterdam, non-western ethnicity. Smoking during pregnancy and later in the house, diabetes in the mother and the parents’ BMI (body mass index – a relationship of weight and height which is a measurement of obesity) were all relevant, as was whether the child was attending daycare.
Other tools and scorecards have been modelled in the past, some of them including genetic factors. But they are not in widespread use, possibly out of a reluctance by healthcare professionals to alarm parents or imply blame.
Experts say there is a place for them, however. “Any model that accurately predicts an increased likelihood of developing obesity allows us to intervene and provide targeted weight management support and advice at an earlier stage,” said Dr Max Davie, an officer for health improvement at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the UK.
“We know that overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults with an increased risk of serious health problems, so being able to identify and help young children at risk would go some way towards protecting their health in the future,” he added.
Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said childhood obesity was one of the most serious issues of our time and new tools to help GPs advise families could be useful. “The stark truth is that overweight and obese children face numerous, serious health-related problems – both physical and mental – in the years ahead, if their weight is not addressed,” she added.
“It is important that we don’t get into the habit of relying on new innovations and interventions to help us and our children live healthy lifestyles – the best way to maintain a healthy weight will always be to keep active, eat a balanced diet, not to smoke, and for adults, only to drink alcohol in moderation. But new tools to help GPs target lifestyle advice appropriately, and at an early stage, would certainly be interesting to explore.”