Two new studies are adding to the growing body of evidence that prenatal smoking and exposure to a common household chemical may contribute to adolescent obesity.
While doctors have long suspected that maternal cigarette smoking increases the risk of obesity, researchers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children discovered that women who smoked while pregnant appear to cause subtle structural variations in the brains of their unborn children, creating a preference for eating fatty foods.
The study followed 378 teenagers, who were grouped as either exposed to maternal smoking (a mother who smoked more than one cigarette a day during the second trimester) or non-exposed (a mother who did not smoke before or during pregnancy).
The students whose mothers smoked weighed less at birth, but as teens they had marginally higher body weight and significantly higher total body fat compared with the non-exposed students. The part of the brain that helps process emotions, the amygdala, was also significantly smaller in the children of smokers.
“Prenatal exposure to maternal cigarette smoking may promote obesity by enhancing dietary preference for fat,” the authors conclude, “and this effect may be mediated in part through subtle structural variations in the amygdala.” The study was published online in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
Prenatal Exposure to PFCs
In another study at Emory University, scientists found that chemical exposure in the womb to common household items and cleaners may also contribute to childhood obesity.
Using data from research conducted in the United Kingdom, scientists found that pregnant women exposed to polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs) have babies that are smaller at birth, but larger at 20 months of age.
“Previous animal and human research suggests prenatal exposures to PFCs may have harmful effects on fetal and postnatal growth,” says lead researcher Michele Marcus, PhD, a professor of epidemiology in Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health
PFCs are widely used in a variety of consumer and industrial products, from carpets and firefighting foam to Teflon and microwave popcorn bags. The chemical is pervasive in the environment, and is often detected in human blood and breast milk.
Scientist followed 447 girls and their mothers as part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Although the girls with higher exposure to PFCs were smaller than average at birth, they were heavier than average in less than two years. And that, researchers say, is a path that may lead to obesity at older ages.
According to another recent study in Denmark, babies exposed to PFCs in the womb were more likely to be overweight by their 20th birthday. Researchers suspect PFCs contribute to higher levels of insulin and heavier body weight in adulthood.
“Our findings are consistent with these studies and emerging evidence that chemicals in our environment are contributing to obesity and diabetes and demonstrate that this trajectory is set very early in life for those exposed,” says Marcus.
The findings of the Emory University study were published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
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