Hardly a week goes by that I don't write a post about childhood obesity. I write about it so often that it is easy to forget that the causes of childhood obesity — overeating and inactivity — are luxurious concerns fairly unique to so-called "developed" countries. In fact, there are many countries around the world where parents wish they were faced with such problems. A new study out of West Africa highlights this disparity.
For the study, researchers looked at case studies of pregnant women in Gambia to determine if supplementing the women's diets with extra calories and protein would protect their undernourished kids from developing heart problems later in life. In general, kids born to moms with poor prenatal nutrition are more likely to be small and underweight at birth, which could have long-term health consequences for the children.
The research team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine measured some 1,300 Gambian kids aged 11 to 17 for signs of early risk factors for diabetes and heart disease. Of the kids studied, half were born to mothers who were given food supplements equal to about 1,000 calories per day starting at their 20th week of pregnancy; the other half of the children were born to mothers who were not given any additional prenatal nutritional supplements.
Surprisingly, there were no clear differences in heart health in terms of blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol for the two groups of kids. So does this mean that these nutritional supplements are a waste? Hardly. In fact, it might be an indication that nutritional supplementation needs to start before the mothers reach their fourth month of pregnancy. And it's important to note that unlike kids in the U.S. who stay pretty much "on the grid," researchers were only able to find about 60 percent of kids whose moms had participated in the study. So it's impossible to know how and if supplementation affected the health of the remaining 40 percent of kids.
In either case, it's a stark reminder of the difficulties that mothers face around the world in getting enough prenatal nutrition to feed their growing babies and ensure that they stay healthy for years to come.