Breastfeeding Fights Obesity

Across the country, significant numbers of children are overweight and the number continues to increase.  Without help, these children will enter their teens having already suffered from over a decade of poor health.  They will face chronic problems that, until recently, were seen only in adults, such as weight-related diabetes and joint problems, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.  To stem the epidemic of childhood overweight, prevention needs to begin long before children enter school or even preschool.  Prevention can begin the day an infant is born.

Breastfeeding has long been recognized as a proven disease prevention strategy.  Among its other well-documented effects, breastfeeding also has recently been found to play a foundational role in preventing childhood overweight.   A recent analysis, which included 61 studies and nearly 300,000 participants, showed that breastfeeding consistently reduced risks for overweight and obesity. (1)  The greatest protection is seen when breastfeeding is exclusive (no formula or solid foods) and continues for more than 3 months (2)(3).

The breastfeeding-obesity link is now recognized by key government agencies and professional groups, including government agencies and professional groups.  Researchers have identified several possible reasons for the protective effect of breastfeeding against obesity(4).

  • Breastfed infants may be better at self-regulating their intake.  Mothers cannot see how much milk their child is drinking, so they must rely on their infant’s behavior, not an empty bottle to signal when their infant is full.  Thus, breastfed babies might be better able to eat only as much as they need. 
  • Breastfed infants are more likely than formula-fed infants to try and accept new foods.  Acceptance of new foods is important because a healthy diet should include a wide variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables. 
  • Because breast milk contains flavors from foods eaten by mothers, breastfed infants are exposed to a variety of tastes early in life.  In contrast, artificial baby milk (formula) always tastes the same.  
  • Breastfeeding has different effects than formula feeding on infant’s metabolism and hormones such as insulin, which tells the body to store fat.  Formula-fed infants tend to be fatter than breastfed infants at 12 months of age.

Kelly Day, PA-C at Alaska Center for Pediatrics

  1. Owen CG, et al. Effect of infant feeding on the risk of obesity across the life course; a quantitative review of published evidence. Pediatrics.  2005;115:1367-1377

  2. Arenz S, et al. Breastfeeding and childood obesity – a systematic review. Int J Obesity 2004;28:1247-1256.

  3. Harder T, et al. Duration of breastfeeding and risk of overweight: a meta-analysis. Am J Epidemiol. 2005;162(5):397-403.

  4. Dewey KG. Is breastfeeding protective against childhood obesity?