Infant growth rate and Obesity in Childhood: History
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There is a clear trend of an increase in childhood obesity risk when infants were exposed to rapid infant growth.

  • infant growth
  • rapid growth
  • growth velocity
  • obesity
  • overweight
  • body mass index
  • childhood

1. Introduction

The global prevalence of obesity has been trending upwards over the last few decades, with the current rate reaching almost triple the rate in 1975. Childhood and adolescent obesity specifically, has seen a greater rate increase with the prevalence growing from 4% in 1975 to 18% in 2016 [1]. Childhood overweight and obesity has been found to track or remain stable from infancy through to childhood and adulthood [2]. This rapid increase in prevalence of obesity among children has led to the classification of childhood obesity as an epidemic [3].

1.1. Health Consequences and Risk Factors of Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is associated with higher risks of premature mortality and morbidity in adulthood [4]. It also has many other detrimental health risks including breathing difficulties, hypertension, increased risk of fractures, early markers of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and psychological effects. In addition to this, some other health consequences that are often not evident until adulthood are cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and certain types of cancers [1].
Risk factors are important to recognise in order to understand the underlying causal factors behind childhood obesity. Prenatal and postnatal periods are critical times in which the foetus and infant are exposed to various risk factors that may have potential effects on growth, development and future health status. This period of time from conception to the end of the second year of an infant’s life is known as the ‘First 1000 days’, a period of maximum developmental plasticity [5]. Risk factors that occur within the prenatal period can include overweight or obesity of the mother pre-pregnancy, excessive gestational weight, alcohol consumption and smoking during pregnancy, gestational diabetes and maternal stress. Once the mother has given birth, post-natal risk factors can include a high birth weight, absence of breastfeeding, early or late introduction to solid foods and rapid growth rate during infancy [5].

1.2. Infant Growth Rate

Infant growth rate can be determined through measurements in terms of weight-for-age, length-for-age, weight-for-length, BMI-for-age percentiles and z-scores, and the velocity reflected to the changes observed in these growth measurements during specific time periods throughout infancy. Most commonly, growth velocity is defined as a change in weight or height over a certain time period, expressed as g/month or cm/month. The expected pattern of infant growth under adequate conditions begins with a rapidly decelerating growth rate from birth, which then reaches a near-plateau by the end of the first year of life and then continues to taper off throughout the second year [5]. For infants born full-term, the rate of infant growth can be classified as retarded growth, normal growth or rapid growth depending on whether growth velocity during infancy shows a steep downward, a stable or a steep upward move of the infant’s position, respectively, in the growth charts. Pre-term infants or infants born small for gestational age (SGA) experience a different pattern of growth, most commonly showing an accelerated growth velocity, known as “catch-up growth”.
The common definition of rapid growth during infancy is a change in weight or length-for-age standard deviation score greater than +0.67 from birth to age 24 months. In contrast, retarded growth is commonly defined as a change in weight or length-for-age standard deviation score greater than −0.67 from birth to age 24 months [6]. Although these definitions are often used, some researchers that have explored rapid and retarded infant growth have used alternative terms and measures as criteria for defining growth.

1.3. Current Evidence

Other published systematic literature reviews that were identified assessed the association between infant growth and subsequent obesity risk with varying focuses. Cho et al. [7] and Hong et al. [8] focused their reviews on SGA infants as their population groups of interest. Andrea et al. [9] focused their review on studies that had racial/ethnic minority or low-SES study populations. Rallis et al. [10] focused on studies with only body fat measures as their outcomes. Arisaka et al. [11] explored the effects of rapid weight gain in infancy and childhood, rather than focusing solely on infancy. Finally, Rolland-Cachera et al. [12] combined infant growth and nutrient intake as their exposure when investigating the risks of developing childhood obesity.
The current available evidence highlights the association between infant growth rate and subsequent obesity risk, however there is a limited comprehensive understanding of this relationship that also considers the factors of varying birth weight status, duration of exposure and the relationship between obesity risk factors and the development of obesity.

2. Infant growth rate and Obesity in Childhood

2.1. Overweight and Obesity

The evidence presents results that demonstrate a positive relationship between infant growth rate and overweight and obesity during childhood among a range of ages and exposure durations. Studies found that infants that experienced rapid weight gain, catch-up growth or increased weight velocity were all associated with a subsequent increased risk of developing obesity or being overweight during childhood. There were no identifiable trends of change in risk among the research of different durations of exposure on overweight/obesity. In regard to age at outcome, two studies found that children at a younger age, i.e., at 3 and 5 years, who experienced rapid infant growth, had greater odds of developing obesity than during later childhood, i.e., at 7 and 10 years, respectively [13][14]. When analysing results that presented split exposure durations [15], it was found that the risk of overweight was greater associated with weight velocity within the first 3 months than within the first 12 months of infancy. This finding suggests that there are greater risks associated with infant growth rate in the earliest period of infancy than later on. The consistency of associations among the studies relating to overweight and obesity were also seen in a range of settings in developed and developing countries. It was found that infants who experienced rapid infant weight gain were at greater risk of developing overweight or obesity if they were in a rural setting, compared to an urban setting [16]. Although this was a significant finding, only one study explored this exposure and outcome relationship among an urban and rural setting.

2.2. Body Mass Index

Results suggest that infant growth rate is positively associated with childhood BMI, suggesting that rapid growth during infancy increases the risk of a high BMI during childhood. Growth of varying durations, between birth to 2 years of age, that were measured as weight velocity, weight change, catch-up growth or rapid infant weight gain were related to BMI outcomes up to 12 years of age. Two studies analysed their results based on birth weight status, however only one of these presented statistically significant results [17]. This study found that like other evidence in this review, there was a positive association between catch-up growth and BMI among AGA infants, however, infants that were born SGA experienced a negative association [17]. Likewise, the second study also identified a negative association between catch-up growth and BMI among infants born SGA [18]. Although not statistically significant, there may be some clinical significance in this supporting finding. A decelerated rate of growth and catch-up growth in SGA infants were independently found to be associated with a decreased risk of developing a high BMI [19][17].

2.3. Waist Circumference

Results on the relationship between infant growth rate and childhood waist circumference support the finding that there is a positive association between the exposure and outcome. The results suggest that an increased rate of infant growth increases the risk of developing a high waist circumference during childhood. As the three studies that explored this association had varying exposure durations, 0–6 months [20], 0–12 months [21] and 0–18 months [22], it can be stated that rapid infant growth of any duration during the first 18 months of life has a positive association with childhood waist circumference. Additionally, the sample group ages ranged from 4 to 10 years, suggesting that the effect of rapid growth during infancy is not restricted to a specific age during childhood, but can rather be observed throughout childhood.

2.4. Body Composition

Childhood body composition measures, such as FMI, FFMI, %BF and visceral fat index, were mostly found to be positively associated with infant growth rate. The results indicate that a greater rate of infant growth is likely to lead to greater body fat mass levels in childhood. Duration of exposure varied among the studies, however this was not found to have an effect on the outcomes. One study identified a negative association between infant growth velocity at 6–12 months and FFMI z-score at 2–3 years of age, in contrast to a positive association between the same outcome and infant growth velocity at 0–6 months [23]. These findings raise the question of whether infant growth in the earliest stage of infancy may have a greater effect on childhood body composition outcomes.
Additionally, and similarly to the findings on WC, the age range that outcomes were explored within throughout childhood were not limited to early, middle or late childhood. This highlights that the effects of rapid infant growth can be observed across the years of 2 to 12. In regard to decelerated growth, results from one study identified that decelerated infant growth was negatively associated with FMI at 6 years of age [19]. This result was the only one within the studies in this review that presented a statistically significant, negative association between retarded or decelerated growth and the outcome of interest. This finding highlights a rate of infant growth, other than rapid, that could also potentially have a causal relationship with adiposity measures in childhood.

2.5. Primary and Secondary Outcomes

All studies that explored the effect of infant growth rate on primary and secondary outcomes presented results that indicated a correlation between the two outcome groups. Positive associations found among primary outcome results were also found among secondary outcome results. For example, rapid infant growth rate that was found to be positively associated with the primary outcomes of BMI and overweight/obesity, was also found to be positively associated with any secondary outcomes investigated, such as FMI [24]. In contrast, one study that explored the effects of decelerated infant growth identified significant negative associations with BMI and FMI [19]. This relationship between primary and secondary outcomes suggests that the effects of infant growth rate are not limited to affecting one outcome, but rather can affect a range of outcomes and risk factors related to obesity.

2.6. Effect of Birth Weight Status

Only one study presented statistically significant results that allowed for the comparison of association between exposure and outcome among SGA and AGA infants. Although this study also included LGA infants in their sample, the results for this sub-sample were not statistically significant. The results identified a negative association between infant catch-up growth and child BMIZ among infants born SGA, while there was a positive association between the same exposure and outcome among infants born AGA. The normal pattern of growth for SGA infants is to experience catch-up growth, however this is not the normal pattern for AGA infants. Due to this, AGA infants that experienced rapid growth were at greater risk of developing a higher BMIZ score in childhood than SGA infants who experienced catch-up growth. Other studies that identified the birth weight status among their sample population either did not perform any stratified analysis based on the size at birth or did not present significant results, and therefore no comparison could be made.

2.7. Exposure Duration

It was shown that outcomes, such as overweight/obesity and BMI, were positively associated with the exposures, regardless of duration.
Other studies that split their exposure durations into intervals, such as 0–<6 months and 6–12 months, were able to identify differences among the intervals in sizes of effect on their outcomes. A number of studies highlighted that size of effect was greater in the earliest months of infancy, compared to later months, while other study results suggested that size of effect was greater in later months of infancy. Due to the analysis in the review being limited to a narrative analysis, other trends among durations of exposures and outcomes were not observed.

3. Implications and Recommendations

The effects of growth rate during different stages of infancy should be further explored to better understand if a certain period of infancy, such as the first three months, is more critical and associated with greater risks. Other prenatal and postnatal factors could potentially also be included in future analyses, such as maternal gestational weight gain and feeding patterns (i.e., exclusive breastfeeding versus exclusive feeding with formula versus mixed feeding with breastmilk and formula) of infants, to identify possible associations. Finally, retarded or decelerated infant growth rate was another area in this review with limited research, which should be further explored to identify the effect on the risks associated with childhood obesity and risk factors. Determining an ideal rate of growth to minimise the risks of developing childhood obesity should be the focus of future research.

This entry is adapted from the peer-reviewed paper 10.3390/nu13103449

References

  1. World Health Organization: Obesity and Overweight. Available online: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight (accessed on 7 June 2021).
  2. Evensen, E.; Wilsgaard, T.; Furberg, A.S.; Skeie, G. Tracking of overweight and obesity from early childhood to adolescence in a population-based cohort—The Tromsø Study, Fit Futures. BMC Pediatrics 2016, 16, 64.
  3. Di Cesare, M.; Soric, M.; Bovet, P.; Miranda, J.J.; Bhutta, Z.; Stevens, G.A.; Laxmaiah, A.; Kengne, A.P.; Bentham, J. The epidemiological burden of obesity in childhood: A worldwide epidemic requiring urgent action. BMC Med. 2019, 17, 212.
  4. World Health Organization: Noncommunicable Diseases: Childhood Overweight and Obesity. Available online: https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/noncommunicable-diseases-childhood-overweight-and-obesity (accessed on 7 June 2021).
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