Guest Blog: Could breastfeeding be the solution to reducing obesity?

by Beth Bradshaw | 7 August, 2019 7:55 am

This World Breastfeeding Week (1st-7th August), we hear from Paediatric Dietician and founder of Nutrition 4 Nippers Denise King, to consider whether breastfeeding could be a solution to the growing obesity crisis that we are facing in the UK…

Obesity remains a public health problem within the UK; it continues to increases a person’s risk of a number of diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, all of which can lead to early death. Obesity can also lead to poor mental health.

Research undertaken by the National Childhood Measurement Program (NCMP) concludes that being obese is more common among boys than girls, obesity rates are higher in areas of deprivation, and amongst black ethnic groups, and that childhood obesity is likely to lead to adult obesity in later life1.

The NCMP statistics show that between their 2006/2007 report and their 2017/2018 report, the number of children aged between 4-5 years that were overweight or obese has remained relatively unchanged with approximately 12.8% overweight and 9.5% obese1. However, in children aged between 10-11 years there continues to be an increase in those either overweight or obese, with figures rising from 31.6% in 2006/2007 to 34.3% in 2017/20181. Prevalence of obesity in this age group is almost double (20.1%) that of age 4-5 year olds (9.5%)1.

Despite a number of initiatives being put in place to tackle childhood obesity, the government still needs to invest more in this area.  According to the WHO’s Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative, which monitored thousands of children across 22 European countries and showed that breastfeeding can reduce a child’s chance of becoming obese by 25%2, investing in breastfeeding support services would help the government to achieve their aim of halving childhood obesity by 2030 3.  The WHO study highlighted that the more exclusive and longer the duration of breastfeeding, the greater the protection2.

There are a number of reasons why breastfeeding may be protective against obesity: formula feeding can cause higher levels of insulin to be produced in comparison to breastfeeding which can lead to increased fat storage and ultimately obesity; exclusive breastfeeding delays the introduction of solid foods, commercial baby foods that many families now use may contribute to infants consuming higher levels of energy than needed; and finally children who are breastfed seem to consume more fruit and vegetables3.

Like all studies, the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative2 has its limitations. However, due to the large sample size, it is likely that the results reflect the relationship between breastfeeding and obesity and its impact on our society well.

If we were to increase the prevalence and maintenance of breastfeeding in the UK, a number of interventions would need to be put in place.

  1. Foremost, women need to be educated on infant feeding during their pregnancy. Each expectant mother should be given a chance to discuss her individual health and medical background in relation to her baby’s birth and feeding potential with an appropriate health professional. Expert and bespoke infant feeding advice should then be offered.
  2. Post birth, an appropriate level of support based on the findings of the antenatal education sessions and birth of the baby should be put in place. High birth weight and premature babies are both at increased risk of obesity2.
  3. All women, regardless of their health and medical background, should be given 1-2-1 support to breastfeed or provide breastmilk on a daily basis until feeding is established. This could be through prolonged hospital stay, home visits, or group support. We know that this is the most effective period for enhancing breastmilk supply. More support in this crucial time is likely to reduce the amount of intervention required to be undertaken by health professionals later on and increase the duration of breastmilk feeding.

In my opinion, the government must do more to acknowledge the importance of childhood nutrition by investing in services that will provide solid foundations for the lifelong health of our children. Only by doing this will we be able to reduce teenage and adult health issues such as obesity, as well as their associated costs to the NHS and society.

  1. National Childhood Measurement Program.[1], Accessed online 4.8.19
  2. Association between Characteristics at Birth, Breastfeeding and Obesity in 22 Countries: The WHO European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative – COSI 2015/2017.[2], Accessed online 4.8.19
  3. Government Response to the House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee report on Childhood obesity: Time for action, Eighth Report of Session 2017–19[3] Accessed online 4.8.19

Following a successful career as a professional dancer travelling the world, Denise King studied Dietetics at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. After graduating with a First Class Honours degree, Denise began working for the NHS as an adult Dietitian before realising her passion was to work with children. She currently works as a Clinical Lead Paediatric Dietician for Wirral Community NHS Trust, as well as being an International Board Certified Lactation consultant, and running her own business Nutrition 4 Nippers. Denise believes that in order to improve health and reduce disease as an adult we first must improve the nutrition of our children.



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