From the Airy Fringes of Childhood Obesity Research

Pregnant Woman

Not long ago, Dr. Pretlow was extensively quoted in an article written by Marsha McCulloch, R.D., which appeared in Live Right Magazine. The author also quoted Bruce Blumberg, Ph.D., of the University of California at Irvine, who strongly advocates good prenatal nutrition and a minimal exposure to chemicals. According to research done there:

Animal studies indicate that exposure to certain chemicals, such as tributyltin (TBT) used in many plastics, at critical times of growth, including while in the womb, can reprogram the body to make and store more fats than it would otherwise.

How does this work? Science is a long way from knowing. Maybe something happens that makes the developing person more susceptible to addiction, and it shows up as widespread childhood obesity, for the simple fact that food is the earliest addictive substance available to children. If babies could get their hands on nicotine first, before sugar-laden formula, they might be addicted to that instead.

For Mother Nature Network, Jenn Savedge looked at work done at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which Dr. Jerrod Heindel talked about at a conference on chemicals, obesity, and diabetes. Dr. Heindel is acting chief of Cellular, Organ & Systems Pathobiology at the institution. He suggests that many problems lie in the ability of environmental chemicals to mimic hormones. The body doesn’t know what it’s encountering, and its endocrine system can get all messed up because of these impostors. The results, many scientists increasingly believe, can range from asthma to ADD to early puberty and diabetes, and possibly even childhood obesity.

Another wrinkle to the mystery is that the adult human organism may be able to process or neutralize substances that could have devastating effects on the vulnerable developing systems of fetuses and babies. Even more complications are caused by delayed reactions. Chemical exposure in utero might cause damage that does not show up for many years, and thus is less susceptible to detection of its origin. Savedge says:

Some chemicals may even alter a person’s ‘set point’ so they do not feel full even though their body has had enough to eat. These people inadvertently keep eating and thus develop weight problems.

Childhood Obesity News has discussed some of the discoveries (or leads that might be potential discoveries) in the field of genetics, as it relates to childhood obesity. Last month, BBC News health reporter Neil Bowdler explained epigenetics, “associated molecular changes… which can play a role in the way genes are ‘expressed’ or encoded into the many proteins which we need to grow and function.”

The scientists at Newcastle University who did this work are the first to admit that they are a long way from having any definitive answers. The statements they issue contain a whole lot of “may” and “might.” Here is the gist:

Dr Caroline Relton… and colleagues took blood samples from 24 children aged 11 to 13 and identified epigenetic changes in 29 genes which could be associated with higher body mass among the children.

They then looked at data from a larger study of 178 individuals, for whom there were both cord blood samples from birth, and body composition data from aged about nine. Among these individuals, epigenetic changes to nine of the 29 genes previously identified appeared to correspond to increased body weight, although only one of these associated changes withstood rigorous further analysis…

Twin studies are of inestimable importance in this field, because while some histories of separated twins make it obvious that genetics counts for a lot, other studies show that DNA is not the whole story. While the big picture is still foggy, many are convinced that chemical signals can and do turn genes on or off at birth, and some of this activity is related somehow to the child’s weight at age 10 and later.

The reporter found experts in the field who describe the newest findings as interesting and exciting, so who knows what could happen next? Dr. Relton says:

While we have discovered an association between these genes and body size in childhood we need to carry out further studies to establish whether influencing the expression of these genes by altering epigenetic patterns is indeed a trigger to obesity.

In inner New York City (actually, Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx), Dr. Andrew Rundle and a team from Columbia University have been studying low-income mothers and children of African American and Dominican ancestry. These academics are quite positive about the link between environmental pollution and childhood obesity, especially in poor neighborhoods with high concentrations of airborne chemicals, where the childhood obesity rate might be as high as 25%.

The Daily Mail says:

The burning of coal, diesel, oil and gas — as well as other substances, such as tobacco — produce chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)… Children of women exposed to high levels of PAH during pregnancy were nearly twice as likely (1.79 times) to be obese at age five, and more than twice as likely (2.26 times) to be obese at age seven, compared with children of mothers with lower levels of exposure. The seven-year-olds whose mothers were in the highest exposure group had, on average, 2.4lb more fat mass than children of mothers with the least exposure.

Dr. Rundle, the lead author, is a professor of epidemiology. While certainly not discounting the effects of poor diet and lack of exercise, among other things, he does believe there is a solid connection here, and says:

For many people — who don’t have the resources to buy healthy food or don’t have the time to exercise — prenatal exposure to air pollution may tip the scales, making them even more susceptible to obesity.

As it that weren’t bad enough, previous Columbia University research has found that prenatal exposure to PAH undoubtedly disrupts the endocrine system of the body, causes cancer, and can affect the IQs of children, along with their attentions spans, and may also have something to do with anxiety and depression in kids.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Is Your Child Overweight?,”, 09/11
Source: “Obesity starts with chemical exposure in the womb,” Mother Nature Network, 10/20/11
Source: “Study links womb environment to childhood obesity,” BBC News, 05/14/12
Source: “Prenatal exposure to air pollution linked to childhood obesity,”, 04/17/12
Image by flequi (Montse PB), used under its Creative Commons license.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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