Breastfeeding may not reduce obesity risk
March 12th, 2013
04:00 PM ET

Breastfeeding may not reduce obesity risk

We've heard a lot about the benefits of breastfeeding, and the idea that it reduces the risk of a child becoming overweight or obese has been around for decades.

But a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association contradicts that idea. It suggests that though breastfeeding has many benefits, reducing the likelihood that a child becomes obese or overweight may not be one of them. The evidence to support this conclusion is strong as the study was based on a large randomized controlled trial.


This study was conducted in Belarus at maternity hospitals and the clinics affiliated with them.

Researchers initially looked at information about more than 17,000 pairs of mothers and infants who were breastfeeding. Of them, about 14,000 participated in the follow-up period between January 2008 and December 2010; the children by that time were around 11 years old.

Only healthy, singleton babies who were born weighing at least 2,500 grams (5.5 pounds) were included in the research. Their mothers had initiated breastfeeding and didn't have any conditions that could impact their ability to breastfeed.


This was a randomized controlled study, meaning it is unlikely that other factors besides the breastfeeding intervention influenced the outcomes, said Richard M. Martin, lead study author based at the University of Bristol's School of Social and Community Medicine.

Sixteen of the health facilities were randomly chosen to receive a breastfeeding intervention based on the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, which the World Health Organization and United Nations Children's Fund developed. This initiative helps mothers to start breastfeeding soon after birth and demonstrates breastfeeding to new mothers.

The other 15 clinics did not receive the intervention. Instead, they proceeded with their standard practices, which included early introduction of non-breast liquids and promoting scheduled breastfeeding rather than breastfeeding on demand. "The mothers weren’t encouraged to breastfeed early on," Martin said.


Those who received the intervention were more likely to breastfeed longer, compared to those who were not exposed to the breastfeeding initiative.  At 3 months, babies whose mothers received the intervention were seven times more likely to be exclusively breastfed, and twice as likely to be predominantly breastfed.

When the children were older, researchers didn't find a significant difference in the weight of the children. Breastfeeding also did not appear to influence levels of later-life serum insulin-like growth factor, a natural chemical that regulates a child's stature and body composition.


Although the intervention appeared to promote breastfeeding, it did not appear to lower the prevalence of children who were overweight or obese. Keep in mind Belarus has a lower incidence of obesity than the United States.

Previous research published by Martin and colleagues from the same trial did document benefits of breastfeeding. They found that in the first year of life, children who were breastfed others had less-frequent gastrointestinal infections and eczema than those who were not. Around age 6, they tended to have higher scores on IQ tests.

"Efforts to promote, protect and support breastfeeding should continue," Martin said.

But for policy-makers aiming to reduce the levels of obesity across a population, they may want to focus on other efforts; breastfeeding may not be an effective one, Martin said.

soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. ann

    Even though breastfeeding is a good start to a child's life, it cannot prevent the effects of poor nutrition & lack of exercise that might occur once a child transitions to solid foods.

    March 12, 2013 at 18:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anna

      1. We are largely an insulin resistance people today due to food chemicals. We do not make good insulin to lose weight

      2. Food chemicals have made us insulin resistant and we stay fat

      3. Dieting does not work because we are insulin resistant from food chemicals

      4. You can eat very little and the weight does not come off because we are insulin resistant

      The key permanent weight loss is an insulin resistance diet

      Just google SPIRIT HAPPY DIET

      March 13, 2013 at 09:23 | Report abuse |
    • Terry

      You are right, exercise is key. I have found that you can cut calories and see no difference, but once exercise is added, then the weight comes off.

      March 13, 2013 at 10:56 | Report abuse |
  2. Common Sense

    This is common sense and a worthless article. If you eat junk, you will look like junk. Why don't they do a study on what people eat and how fat they are instead of trying to tie to something that happened to them when they were born?

    March 12, 2013 at 19:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • SixDegrees

      They studied this ecause several smaller, less controlled studies had shown some correlation between breastfeeding and obesity. This study, being larger and more carefully controlled, now takes precedence, but we wouldn't have known that unless it had been done in the first place.

      March 14, 2013 at 03:02 | Report abuse |
  3. scott bleyle

    I'm kinda chubby but I'll give it a try!

    March 12, 2013 at 20:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. rinsac

    Well, I'm gay....but hell, I'd give it a try.

    March 12, 2013 at 21:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. rinsac

    Well, I'm gay....but I'd give it a try to loose weight. lolol

    March 12, 2013 at 21:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. mdmom

    Breastfeeding has NO benefits- it is the biological norm, it's the baseline. Science is asking the wrong question we should be looking at the risks of formula.

    March 12, 2013 at 21:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Michael

      No benefits eh? What about the enzymes and proteins etc that breast milk provides a baby and protects the new born from disease? Before making a statement do some research. If I had to guess our society would have many less issues with a lot of common diseases and things like autism and other "oddities" if mothers would just be mothers. You don't nurse them till there 20 and you know what you chose to have a child and knew the risks to your looks don't complain about stretch marks and sagging is why you don't breastfeed.

      March 13, 2013 at 15:26 | Report abuse |
    • denise

      Very nicely put! This should be the baseline, not formula.

      March 13, 2013 at 17:56 | Report abuse |
    • Jim in PA

      Unfortunately the biological and evolutionary norm isn't aways the current societal norm.

      March 14, 2013 at 07:29 | Report abuse |
    • mdmom

      Michael- yes no benefits because it is the biological norm it is what a baby's body expects to use as THE building block. Formula is not the biological norm, therefore using formula introduces risks. It's a paradigm shift in how we look at the subject. By saying breastfeeding offers "benefits" it puts breastmilk in the role of *extra*– and formula as the norm. Formula maybe the societal norm in the US but it is not the biological norm. Saying breastmilk offers advantages is like saying not smoking has benefits.

      March 14, 2013 at 07:40 | Report abuse |
  7. science_curmudgeon

    When will reporters learn that not finding an effect does not prove the null hypothesis?
    If there is a difference in the dependent variable (obesity) between the two conditions, you can attribute it to the factor being varied in the controlled randomized trial (breastfeeding intervention). If you don't find a difference, there are any number of factors that could be the cause. Argh!!!!

    March 12, 2013 at 21:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Robert

    It helps the mother lose weight. As for the child, it only works if they avoid grains and vegetable oils.

    March 13, 2013 at 01:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Prab R. Tumpati, MD

    While breast feeding is a great idea, for those that want to avoid Obesity, here are 8 things that Obese People Do and How to Avoid Them!

    1. Avoid High Glycemic Foods and Think Protein!
    When people were fed high glycemic foods, they consumed up to 55 percent more foods as they get hungry sooner! Most obese people have underlying insulin resistance that makes them go in to metabolic problems, and central weight gain that can be avoided by reducing the glycemic load of foods.

    2. Stop Looking At The Food!
    41.7% of obese people took seats that directly faced the buffet, as opposed to seats out of eyesight of the food. Looking at food (not on our table) makes our body and mind less full and feel we have more work to do, i.e. eat more. Keep food stored away and not laying out during the day.

    3. Start With A Smaller Plate!
    When two plates were offered, 98.6% of people with a higher BMI(Body Mass Index) took the larger plate in a buffet line. A larger plate will fool your brain into thinking you’re eating less than you actually are. Use a smaller plate, get a smaller waist line.

    4. Do Not Eat All In The Plate!
    During the study, 94% obese people cleaned their plates to the point of nothing being left. Forget your Mom’s advice and leave a little food left on the plate. Better waste than waist!

    5. Chew More!
    The researchers observed chewing of participants in the study. The heaviest one-third chewed their food almost 25% less than the leanest one-third. Slow down. Take your time. Chew your food.

    6. Do not jump right in!
    The most obese people didn’t take time to observe all the items on the buffet. They grabbed a plate and started in right away. The leanest took their time and made a lap of the buffet. In your day to day life, stop and think for a second before you eat. Often times that quick craving will slowly fade away.

    7. Never Skip Breakfast!
    They don’t call it the most important meal of the day for a reason. Skipping breakfast regularly increases your risk of obesity by 450%. Take the time to have a healthy breakfast in the morning. It will jump start your metabolism and leave you less hungry by lunch. If you start the day with protein, studies have shown that you consume less calories and be less hungry throughout the day. A good and cheap source of protein would be eggs, cheese, yoghurt or meat! The cholesterol in the eggs is not a major concern as eggs have lecithin which is beneficial. If you are still concerned about cholesterol, you can just have the egg whites which have no cholesterol.

    8. Eat With Chopsticks(or Fingers)!
    Some buffets offer chopsticks. The clinically obese almost always opt for forks. Try using chopsticks around the home to slow down eating and create a feeling of fullness with less calories consumed.

    Prab R. Tumpati, MD
    Obesity and Sleep Medicine
    Founder, W8MD Medical Weight Loss Centers

    March 13, 2013 at 08:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Ginn

    Was the mothers nutrition OR for that matter the child's nutrition monitored at all? The mothers nutrition during not only pregnancy but throughout breat feeding and the child's nutrition especially up to the age of 4 but continued throughout the 11 years?? I think that we need to look at that, not just the act of being breastfed!!! Needed in this study (and I will look for the entire study) is how much processed food was consumed, the lifestyle of the families (their backgrounds, their religion, down to whether they were vegan or if they ate organic or grass fed products), etc.... ALSO their sleep schedules. That is a huge factor as well.

    March 13, 2013 at 08:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • mdmom

      What a mother eats does not effect the nutritional value of her breastmilk. Even women in refugee camps & concentration camps were able to breastfed. It takes EXTREME conditions for breastmilk to be effected.

      March 14, 2013 at 07:43 | Report abuse |
  11. BFmed

    This article cannot possibly comment on breastfeeding as the majority of the babies studied were NOT exclusively breastfed. There are only rates given–7x as many at 3 months could be a difference of 2% to 14%. And this is not a breastfeeding culture and clearly they explained obstacles in starting and continuing. It is unlikely that any significant percentage of babies were breastfed long enough (at least one year) to impact the biochemistry (both neurochemistry and GI) as well as eating skills (breastfeeding teaches satiety) to decrease obesity.

    March 13, 2013 at 11:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bob

      obesity has many causes and many cures. Breastfeeding does not prevent obesity my friends, because if you look back in history, when virtually everybody was breast fed there were still bese people. Diets in civilized worlds have changed mor radically in the past 100 years than in the previous 10,00 years. the bigest difference is far more highly processed, high glycemic foods than ever. Add high fat content and super calorie concentrated with a sedentary lifestyle and you have have obesity. The discussion about breastfeeding and obesity and all of the concurrent suppositions about cause and affect can be boiled down to eating more calories than you expend. You can be breastfed, bottle fed,tube fed or fed any way you want, but if you consume more calories than you use, you will gain weight. If you consume less calories than you use you will lose weight

      April 18, 2013 at 23:45 | Report abuse |
  12. floyd schrodinger

    Wil breastfeeding reduce obesity? Wil spell checking make more people read your article?

    March 13, 2013 at 16:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Deann

    I like how we ignore the fact that there is a correlation found (AGAIN!) between IQ and breastfeeding. But, let's not make that the headline. Lets just continue with this idea that breastfeeding doesn't matter.

    March 13, 2013 at 22:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. fionajesse

    Breast feeding is good for the babies as well as for the mothers but it doesn't stop them from being obese as obesity more affects due to hereditary and then unhealthy eating habits.

    March 14, 2013 at 07:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jim in PA

      Are you proposing that obesity is hereditary? Obesity is not hereditary (i.e. genetic). If it were, we would not be seeing a recent increase in obesity, it would have been a baseline condition for the last 100 years or more. What you are suggesting is that our genetic composition is changing at an alarming rate, which of course it is not. Obesity in America is 99% due to poor diet and exercise.

      March 14, 2013 at 07:38 | Report abuse |
  15. JennRD

    Does anyone know who funded this study? I know the pharmaceutical companies are getting nervous about the increased interest in breastfeeding. Good thing for them there's WIC.

    March 14, 2013 at 11:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Darliene Howell

    I would like to recommend the free NAAFA Child Advocacy ToolkitSM (CATK). The total health of our nation's children is a serious responsibility.

    The NAAFA Child Advocacy Toolkit shows how Health At Every Size® takes the focus off weight and directs it to healthful eating and enjoyable movement. It addresses bullying, building positive self-image and eliminating stigmatization of large children. Additionally, the CATK lists resources available to parents and educators or caregivers for educational materials, curriculum and programming that is beneficial for all children. It can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/7ma5bml

    March 15, 2013 at 00:19 | Report abuse | Reply
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