According to a recent study, the more children a woman has, the more likely she is to experience weight problems later in life. However, researchers also found that women may be able to counteract that risk slightly by breastfeeding their babies.
“Women who are in their childbearing years can take from our and other research that breastfeeding is good for them and their children and that the benefits for their own health may be extremely long-lasting,” said Kirsty Bobrow, clinical researcher at the University of Oxford in England.
This particular study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, looked at the body mass index (BMI) of about 740,000 postmenopausal women with an average age of 58. All women who participated were asked to report their height, weight, number of children and weight. They were also asked other questions regarding their breastfeeding history.
Of the women who had no children, the average BMI was 25.6. This is considered to be slightly overweight. Of the women who had four or more children, the average BMI was 27.2, close to being considered obese (a BMI of 30 or above). Because of this, researchers concluded that having children increases the risk of obesity.
In addition, researchers looked at the breastfeeding choices of the women who had given birth. Seventy percent reported that they had breastfed their children with an average duration of 7.7 months. When analyzing the data further, researchers found that for every six months of breastfeeding, the risk of obesity was lowered by one percent. What’s more, researchers also found that the data remained consistent, even when other factors were accounted for: smoking, activity level and other factors that are known to affect weight. For this reason, researchers said that the reduction in risk of obesity is a “relatively small, but important, persistent reduction.”
Researchers are unsure as to why the link exists, but they believe that it “may be involved in re-setting various metabolic control centers in the brain after childbirth.” This theory is known as the “reset” hypothesis. However, researchers also emphasized that this study merely points out a link. It is not necessarily a cause and effect analysis.
Erica Gunderson, a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Northern California division of research in Oakland, California, who did not participate in the study, says that this particular study is unique because of the sheer number of participants.
“This type of cross-sectional study has never been accomplished with this sample size,” Gundferson said. She added that this is a definite strength of the study, but it is far from conclusive. Knowing what the women’s BMI was before childbirth would have been helpful, she says.
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