MORE evidence suggests breast-fed kids may be leaner

Tuesday, May 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ Two new studies add to the evidence that breast-fed infants may be less likely to become overweight later in childhood.

In a study by Harvard researchers, the longer infants were breast-fed, the less likely they were to be overweight in adolescence. In the second study, government researchers found that breast-fed infants tended to be leaner at ages 3 to 5 than formula-fed infants, but the duration of breast-feeding did not make much difference.

The studies, published in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association, do not answer whether breast milk itself, the act of breast-feeding or socio-economic and lifestyle traits in the infants' mothers might explain the results.

The government study also suggests that other factors, including the mother's weight, are much more important determinants of a child's weight. It found that children were three times more likely to be overweight if their mothers were overweight.

``Obesity tends to run in families,'' said Mary Hediger, a biologist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and lead author of the study. ``Whether or not that's modifiable by breast-feeding remains to be seen.''

She said that higher-income, better-educated women are more likely to breast-feed and that overweight women are less likely to breast-feed than normal-weight women.

Her study is based on 1988-94 data from a nationally representative government survey. The researchers also interviewed the mothers of 2,685 children and gave the youngsters physical exams when they were ages 3 to 5.

Children who were breast-fed as infants were 16 percent less likely to be overweight.

The Harvard researchers questioned 15,341 children ages 9 to 14 and their mothers in 1996 and 1997. Youngsters who were breast-fed more than formula-fed were about 20 percent less likely to be overweight than children fed only or mostly formula. The link was weakened slightly when mothers' weight was factored in.

Lead author Dr. Matthew Gillman theorized that breast-fed babies learn to ``self-regulate'' food intake better than formula-fed infants because they may have better control over stopping feeding when they are full.

By contrast, parents who use formula may see an unfinished bottle and try to induce their infants to drink more, unwittingly encouraging them to ignore their bodies' own hunger cues. That could raise the risk of weight problems later on.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies get only breast milk during their first six months, except in rare cases. After that, other foods may be introduced, but breast-feeding should continue at least until age 1, it says.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. William Dietz of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the studies suggest that breast-feeding may offer at least some protection against obesity, an epidemic that requires urgent solutions.

Breast milk, ``already acknowledged as the best food for infants,'' may provide a ``low-cost, readily available strategy,'' Dietz said.