The EarlyBird Study: Nothing Cute About Baby Fat

Brody's First Birthday

Childhood Obesity News has discussed the many variables involved in scientific studies, and how difficult it can be to satisfy the results-oriented patrons who are paying for the studies. Whether funding comes from the public or from a corporate entity, nobody wants to wait 20 years for their answers. But sometimes patience is necessary. The EarlyBird Diabetes Study has found a way to satisfy the long-term needs with amassing a truly meaningful collection of data, and also give some hints along the way.

We know that very young children pick up languages easily, then reach an age when acquiring a language takes study and work. Apparently, a similar mechanism is in force when it comes to obesity. There seems to be a critical point after which the pursuit of a normal weight becomes more and more like a lost cause. When Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Claire McCarthy considered some of the news from the ongoing The EarlyBird Diabetes Study, the message she came away with was:

If you don’t want your children to be obese adults, make sure they’re slim at age 5.

But then she goes on to explain why that might not even be an accurate warning. The EarlyBird study, which has been tracking approximately 300 kids for 12 years now, started when the subjects were just under 5 years old, and McCarthy says:

Researchers did know weights at birth, but not in between birth and age 5. Therefore, it’s impossible to know when exactly the children gained the excess weight. Maybe 5 is not the important age. It might be 3 years, or 18 months, or any other age between birth and 5 years.

In other words, it’s never too early to start being concerned about obesity in children. Although this particular study seems to have missed the chance to pinpoint the critical age when weight gain becomes much more difficult to reverse, it is able to stand behind the generalization that the kids who were obese at age 9 had mostly already been so for years:

At age 9, 24% of the children were overweight or obese. Out of this group, 42% already were overweight or obese at age 5. And 100% of the children who were overweight or obese at 9 had a BMI that was higher than the median (50th percentile) at age 5.

One of the amazing things about childhood obesity research is that no one seems quite sure of what constitutes the relationship between obesity and diabetes. What exactly is going on there? How do cause and effect apply? Is there a “vicious cycle” effect?

The other thing about these 9-year-olds was, they were a lot more likely than their normal-weight peers to have abnormal blood pressure readings, and their blood work would come back with discouraging numbers that indicated a more-than-average risk of heart disease and diabetes. And, just as an overweight 5-year-old has a much greater chance of becoming an obese 9-year-old, that 9-year-old has a much greater chance of becoming an obese adult. Dr. McCarthy’s point is, we can’t just brush these concerns aside. The days of thinking, “Oh, it’s just baby fat” are over.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Study: Kids’ Weight Gain Comes Early,”, 01/05/09
Image by Tobyotter (Tony Alter).

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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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