Obesity has become an enormous problem in our time. According to 2016 data on worldwide obesity from the World Health Organization (WHO), about 340 million children and adolescents between the ages 5 and 19 were recorded as overweight or obese. About 41 million children below 5 years old are also considered obese.
Obesity is defined as excessive fat accumulation in the body that exceeds or is equal to 30 in the Body Mass Index (BMI). And while many see obesity as a problem about one's appearance, it carries far more serious consequences than mere aesthetics. So much fat in your body can impair health and trigger medical conditions that could shorten one's life.
Obesity doesn't happen overnight — it is a result of unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits developed over time. In a lot of cases, it begins in childhood and builds up slowly through the teenage years, unmonitored, until it becomes out of control. Recently, a larger study has surfaced showing how obesity could start much earlier — during infancy, in fact — and how the parents' feeding choice for their baby influences it.
A research conducted on almost 30,000 children in 22 countries shows that babies who were exclusively bottle-fed are 25% more likely to end up obese later in life than their breastfed counterparts.
"Human milk — breast milk — is specifically designed for human babies. Not only does it act as baby’s first vaccine, protecting against infections, but it also affects long-term health, including acting as the first defence against the epidemic of obesity," declaredSue Ashmore, director of the UNICEF "Baby Friendly" initiative in the United Kingdom.
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However, one need not shun the bottle completely for her child to reap this benefit of breastfeeding. Mixed feeding works, too, in protecting kids against obesity.
According to the same study cited above, those who were breastfed as babies for at least six months and were given the bottle as well still had 22% less chances of becoming obese than those who were never breastfed at all. Conversely, obesity rates were higher among kids who were never breastfed or who were breastfed for less than six months.
The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby's life, as it contains all the important nutrients he needs for growth during the infancy stage. However, it is still unknown exactly how breastmilk protects the baby from obesity later in life, but the WHO proposes the following theories:
Exclusive breastfeeding helps prevent the practice of complementary feeding, which could cause weight gain. The early introduction of high-protein foods, such as cereals or bottled baby food, is more common among formula-fed babies, and this could lead to an increase in the infant's body weight.
Formula-fed infants had a notably higher secretion of insulin than those who were breastfed. High levels of insulin could stimulate the development of fat cells and fat deposits in the body.
Breast milk contains hormones that regulate the balance of energy in the infant's body. The simple act of breastfeeding sets the child for life to develop healthier eating habits and having a lower risk for obesity as an adult.
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Overfeeding has also been suggested as one of the reasons bottle-fed babies are more likely to become overweight. How does it happen?
A breastfed baby will stop sucking at the mom's breast when he or she is full, whereas bottle-fed babies are likely to be asked by their parent or caregiver to finish the bottle (to provide wastage, possibly) or to feed on schedule. Add to this the fact that formula milk, which is made from cow's milk, has a higher level of protein which could trigger the growth of fat cells, and it presents a strong case on the link between bottle feeding and obesity.
Experts emphasize the importance of eating only when hungry and knowing when to stop feeding when you're full as a good practice to fight obesity, whether in our infant children or among us adults. Thus, the term "responsive feeding" inevitably crops us in the issue of breastfeeding and obesity.
Responsive feeding helps your child develop his ability to self-regulate his eating habits at an early age. On the flipside, ignoring these feeding signs may cause him to develop unhealthy eating habits later in life, and become overweight or obese.
A paper entitled "Breastfeeding as Obesity Prevention" published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in August 2011 also supports the findings that exclusive breastfeeding could help protect kids against obesity.
“Breast milk provides your baby with food that is easy to digest and very nutritious, and your child helps decide how much to eat and when to eat it. Both the breast milk itself and the way your baby feeds help him or her to develop healthy eating patterns. Breastfed babies seem to be better able to regulate their food intake and thus are at lower risk for obesity,” author Megan A. Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH, wrote.
Aside from preventing obesity in children, breastfeeding also brings a host of other benefits to both mother and child. Not only is it more practical, it also lowers a mom's risks for breast cancer and ovarian cancer, boosts mental health, and acts as a natural contraception, among others. Breastmilk, also called "liquid gold," is also filled with antibodies that naturally protect your young child, and is the most complete food your baby could possibly have during this time.
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All of these reasons make breastfeeding a likely choice among mothers. Nonetheless, it is totally up to her how she wishes to feed her baby, and that choice needs to be respected, keeping in mind that whether breastfed or bottle-fed, "fed" is always best.