The three things that will predict whether a child will be obese

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

When you decided whether or not to finish high school or go to university, it's a safe bet concerns about your future children's weight had very little to do with your decision making process.

But, according to a new Australian study, a mother's education level is one of the three factors that can predict whether a child is likely to be overweight or obese by the time they reach adolescence. The other two determining factors are the child's body mass index as well as their mother's BMI.

The new study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, found these three factors were around 70 per cent accurate in predicting whether children, regardless of their current weight, were obese when they reached the age of 14 or 15.

With one in four adolescents overweight or obese, this new information could be used to help doctors predict which children are more likely to develop weight problems and target care for those at risk. 

"Targeting care, whether treatment or prevention, to those who really need it avoids wasting resources and harm from over-treating children who will grow out of their weight issues," the researchers write.

"But until now, we haven't been able to predict on the spot who these children are."

Researchers recruited 7,000 children aged under one-year-old in 2004 and followed them up every two years.  At each follow up point they gathered information including the child's birth weight, duration of breastfeeding, method of birth, details about how often they ate high-fat foods and sugary drinks, their rate of physical activity, and levels of disadvantage in their neighbourhoods. Researchers also measured children's height and weight and parents reported their height and weight, allowing their BMI to be calculated.

"Three consistent factors in both age groups predicted the development or resolution of weight problems by adolescence: the mother's BMI, the child's BMI and the mother's level of education," researchers write.

"For every one unit increase in the child's BMI at age six to seven, the odds of developing weight problems at 14-15 rose three-fold. It also halved the odds of the weight issues resolving.

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"Similarly, for every one unit increase of the mother's BMI when the child was aged six to seven, the chance of the child developing weight problems by 14-15 increased by 5 per cent. The odds of weight issues resolving decreased by 10 per cent.

"In addition, at two to five years of age, children whose mothers had a university degree had lower odds of being overweight or obese. For children who were already overweight or obese at two to five, those whose mothers had a university degree were more likely to have their weight issues resolved by adolescence.

"Together, these three factors were around 70 per cent accurate in predicting both the development and resolution of weight problems.

"Only 13 per cent of normal-weight six to seven year olds, with none of these three risk factors, became overweight or obese by age 14-15. In contrast, 71 per cent of those with all three risk factors became overweight or obese."

Researchers hope their findings will help doctors implement early intervention strategies for children at risk of obesity in a bid to address the growing health problem.