Friday, September 01, 2006

Causes of Childhood Obesity?

This Guardian article makes a good deal of sense to me. Thanks Jax.

It reminded me of a recent conversation during which the point was made that food should not be consumed as a way of satisfying anything other than hunger, the implication being that to do otherwise constituted a form of addiction.

Funnily enough, the gentle person who made this point had been a long term breast feeder and also had, I distinctly remember, breastfed her children when they hurt themselves. I missed the chance to ask her whether she regarded herself as having been responsible for creating and feeding an addiction, which is probably only fair, given that I think she is only harsh in labelling herself.

Anyway, my point here (which was not directly covered in the article) is that one of the key factors in the argument that breast feeding appears to help with limiting obesity may be that infants who are breastfed do apparently naturally seek comfort for things other than hunger. They use breast feeding both as a means of emotional support and a way of dealing with physical pain. Breastfeeding has this advantage over bottle feeding in that breast milk is very often instantly available in times of emotional need or when the child hurts themselves.

The fact that many breastfed kids are skinny, long-limbed and fit seems to suggest that eating when stressed can make sense and that this may actually not be a terrible thing, an addiction, a cause of obesity etc, but simply the body responding appropriately to it's needs. After all, many foods produce calming or analgesic hormones and neuro-transmitters.

Intentionally, self-coercively avoiding food in these circumstances may not actually help for any number of different reasons. It could, for example, set up a sort of self-loathing, and obsession with food, which could result in being unable stop thinking about it, possibly resulting in some sort of eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.

Simply eating when you feel stressed could mean that you just eat less later on, when you would otherwise have been hungry.

Of course, I didn't manage to make the most of the above points . Instead the libertarian in me, predictably enough, kicked in and I think I made a point that the label "addiction" is simply a pejorative description of people's free choices, and that so labelled, the behaviour does immediately become more problematic. I could have added that the pejorative label may have evolved during times when food was scarse or difficult to produce in times of emotional need. Now we have microwaved hot milk on tap, so to speak.

Would I have been talking rubbish, do you think?


Tim said...

Interesting topic.

One thing I thought of whilst reading your post was a documentary I saw a while ago bout anorexia.

One thing which contributors pointed to as a cause of anorexia was that parents allowed family meal times to become a conflict zone - a time when children's failings were raised and arguments were had. Anorexics responded by taking power back and refusing to eat.

I am not sure that this is totally relevant to what you wrote, but, as I say, it is what came to mind.

David said...

Too much to go into before my thoughts have settled.

One thing, though: children stay indoors and they're lazy couch potatoes. They go outdoors, they're hooligans heading for an ASBO. Hmmm.

Audrey said...

I keep reading this about breastfed children being "thinner" or less inclined to obesity. Are there any true studies done, or are they mainly anecdotal?

I've not seen the evidence myself, and I work with quite a lot of children through the public health dept. The differences in inclination to obesity seem to have far less to do with early feeding choices and much more to do with family lifestyles. Active families rarely have obese children.

Although it has a vast number of benefits, I have a hard time buying the idea that breastfeeding is a reliable preventative for childhood obesity.

Carlotta said...

Hi Tim,

From experience, I'd say that the route you suggest is an ideal one for development of eating disorders and that there are probably any number of different causes of the problem.

I certainly remember that there were a huge percentage of anorexics at my notoriously depressing senior school. At least four out of the twenty or so girls in my house had severe problems with being underweight. At least two of these have had chronic lifelong problems with this disorder. It was hard not to imagine that the school was at least partially responsible, though the educrats usually did blame the parenting as a matter of course.

Carlotta said...


There was quite a lot of UK research about 6 years ago, as I recall. This did conclude that the longer a child was breastfed, the less likely he was to become obese in later life.

Of course, I then do recall reading that in another study bfing was not linked to reduced obesity, although this study didn't look at the length of time that a child was bfed. It is hard to imagine that it could make much difference when it only amounts to a few months worth of bfeeding.

And of course there are so many other factors to consider, that it looks as if one could only possibly consider the most tentative epidemiological study.

Clare said...

Ooh - my favourite topic! I haven't read the article, but based on what you've written:

1. I think it's very important to realise that our bottle-feeding culture encourages us to call breastfeeding exactly that: breast *feeding* when the feeding part is actually a very small part of it for both mother and baby/toddler/child. Sucking is a very strong instinct in babies and toddlers and one that needs to be pandered to - why else to babies who aren't breastfed totally naturally (ie. in a sling, helping themselves whenever they fancy it!) so often need a dummy? Why does a dummy calm bottle-fed babies? Why are babies calmed by being suckled by non-lactating women? Sucking switches something in a baby's/toddler's, much like doing yoga/prayer/meditation does in an adults - it calms them and makes them feel happy. It's got nothing to do with the fact they 'eat' while they're doing it. Having breastfed through two pregnancies (when milk supply dwindles to nearly nothing), and having supported many women doing the same, I can confidently report that, although the lack of milk irritates some toddlers, it hardly ever puts them off and they continue to breastfeed to sleep/when they hurt themselves/to de-tantrum themselves. So what you say about feeding for comfort is, in my opinion, wrong and based on our culture's inaccurate insistence on breastfeeding being more about nutrition than about anything else.

2. One of the reasons they think breastfed babies are less prone to obesity in later life is that they are usually fed totally on demand and are therefore always in control of their own food intake. So not only do they feed when they're hungry, usually only until they are not hungry anymore (as opposed to 'until they're full', which so many adults do) but, due to how perfect breastmilk is for babies, their bodies don't digest and absorb any more fat or nutrients than they need. Their bodies can't deal so well with artificial baby milk because they don't recognise it or understand how to manage it. Also: if a breastfed baby is thirsty, it doesn't feed for long and gets a relatively low-calorie 'meal' (ie. a drink): if he's hungry, he'll feed for longer and draw more fat from the breast so get more calories. The breasts will usually respond to a baby's daily pattern of 'drinks' and '3 course meals' by producing the right sort of milk for them througout the day. An artificially-fed baby gets a high-calorie meal whether it's thirsty or hungry - a bit like an adult fancying a glass of water, but having to have a big meal instead. On top of this, there are the external factors: Artificial baby milk takes time to make up safely, so a baby is often very, very hungry by the time it gets any milk - it therefore often does what we all do when we're very hungry and guzzles down far more than it actually needs to satiate itself. That's if the baby is fed on demand - if it's fed to a schedule, then it's body unlearns the art of listenting to its hunger cues as it only gets milk when the parent offers it. Artificial baby milk is also expensive, and parents are loath to waste any so will often encourage a baby to finish the bottle - this also overrides a baby's natural instincts to control his own food intake. All these factors mean that a breastfed baby, who has always stayed in touch with his body and instincts and followed them, is more likely to be able to maintain that habit throughout his life. Even more so if he is allowed to eat solids as and when he's ready and not encouraged to 'finish the jar/plate'. When we consistently eat more than we need to to stop feeling hungry, we lose that instinct.

In my opinion, letting children eat as and when they want to *from birth* (ie. before they've lost the ability to listen to their bodies) produces children who don't tend to eat more than they need to at each sitting - something that they've shown time and time again is the main problem that obese people have (eating until they're full every time, and also when they're not hungry).

I also agree with Tim about food and power - eating is often the only thing that children feel they can control in their lives, and if this has been the case since they were very young, then they're likely to continue the habit of severely controlling their food intake into adulthood, often with terrible consequences. If we let children be in charge of their own food intake *from birth*, I trust that they will continue to be able to listen to their bodies and will automatically eat a well-balanced diet for their whole lives. And breastfeeding (on demand) sets babies up for this pattern of eating just perfectly.



ps. Sorry it's so long!

Carlotta said...

Thanks Clare...I enjoyed it.

"So what you say about feeding for comfort is, in my opinion, wrong and based on our culture's inaccurate insistence on breastfeeding being more about nutrition than about anything else."

Just checking that I have this bit right...Do you mean that it would be right to call it "suckling for comfort"?

Clare said...

Yup - suckling/nursing/whatever name your toddler has for it...


Anonymous said...

ooh, don't you think a 'nice cup of tea'(warm, sweet and milky) might just be the socially acceptable breatmilk substitute?

It seems to get offerred to adults in any kind of crisis, emotional or physical.

Just a thought

sarah F