Mother’s ultra-processed food consumption linked to increased risk of obesity in her children

‘Dietary guidelines should be refined and financial and social barriers removed to improve nutrition for women’, says new study

Vishwam Sankaran
Monday 10 October 2022 08:15 BST
How to Avoid Processed Foods

A mother’s consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to an increased risk of obesity in her children, according to a new study.

The research, published recently in the journal The BMJ, assessed data from about 20,000 children born to 14,553 mothers and found the link held true, even while accounting for other factors such as physical activity and diets.

While the study is observational and does not prove cause and effect, researchers, including those from the Massachusetts General Hospital in the US, say mothers could benefit from limiting their intake of ultra-processed foods.

Scientists also call for improving dietary recommendations, as well as tackling financial and social barriers to good nutrition for women.

Ultra-processed food, such as packaged baked goods and snacks, as well as sugary drinks and cereals, are commonly found in modern diets, and studies have linked them to weight gain in adults.

However, it has remained unclear if there’s a link between a mother’s consumption of ultra-processed foods and her child’s weight gain.

In the new study, scientists assessed data of 19,958 children born to 14,553 mothers from the Nurses’ Health Study II (NHS II) and the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS I and II) in the US.

The NHS II study, researchers said, is an ongoing assessment to track the health and lifestyles of 116,429 US female registered nurses aged 25-42 in 1989 in which participants reported what they ate and drank, using validated food frequency questionnaires every four years since 1991.

The GUTS I study, they explained, began in 1996 when 16,882 children of age 8-15 years of NHS II participants completed an initial health and lifestyle questionnaire and were monitored every year between 1997 and 2001, and every two years since.

In 2004, researchers said, 10,918 children (aged 7-17 years) of NHS II participants joined the extended GUTS II study.

These kids were followed up in 2006, 2008, and 2011, and every two years thereafter, scientists said.

The surveys also took into account other likely influential factors known to be correlated with childhood obesity such as the mother’s weight, physical activity, and smoking status as well as the kid’s ultra-processed food consumption and physical activity.

Scientists say about 2500 kids (12 per cent) developed overweight or obesity during an average follow-up period of 4 years.

The findings suggest that the mother’s ultra-processed food consumption is linked to an increased risk of overweight or obesity in her offspring.

The study found a 26 per cent higher risk in the group with the highest maternal ultra-processed food consumption (12.1 servings/day) versus the lowest consumption group (3.4 servings/day).

Citing some limitations of the research, scientists say the study could not establish cause, and that some of the observed risks may be due to other unmeasured factors.

Self-reported diet and weight measures might also be subject to misreporting, researchers added.

They say further study is needed to confirm the findings and to understand the factors responsible for this observation.

However, scientists conclude that the latest findings “support the importance of refining dietary recommendations and the development of programs to improve nutrition for women of reproductive age to promote offspring health.”

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