Breast Milk and Obesity

A study links components of a mother’s milk to her infant’s growth.

By | November 2, 2015

FLICKR, FELIZIDAD_0109158Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), complex carbohydrates found in breast milk that are known to influence the developing infant immune system, may affect a baby’s weight and fat gain, according to a study by Michael Goran, director of the Childhood Obesity Research Center at the University of the Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine, and his colleagues.

“At 6 months of age, higher breast milk levels of [the HMOs] LNFPII and DSLNT were each associated with approximately 1 pound of greater fat mass,” study coauthor Tanya Alderete, a postdoc at USC, said in a press release. But other HMOs had the opposite effect, she added. “Increased amounts of a HMO called LNFPI in breast milk [were] associated with about a 1 pound lower infant weight and fat mass.” The researchers published their results last week (October 28) in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Previous research has yielded mixed results with regard to the effects of breastfeeding on obesity. Looking at 71 studies, Goran’s group found that breastfeeding was beneficial, reducing the risk of excess weight and obesity by about 10 percent, relative to formula. But the results of this latest study, which followed 25 mother-infant pairs at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, suggest that the composition of breast milk can make all the difference.

“Clearly there is something going on before weaning even in babies who are exclusively breastfed,” Goran said in the press release. “Ultimately what we would like to be able to do is identify which of the HMOs are most important for obesity protection and then use that as a supplement that can be given to the breastfeeding infant and added to infant formulae.”

It remains unclear what influences HMO composition in a woman’s breast milk. Genetics may play a role, the researchers said, as could a mother’s diet. “It would be very interesting if dietary sugar or fat consumption were found to be related to HMOs,” Alderete said in the release. “That is something we hope to explore in future studies.”

But until more research is available, there’s nothing for new moms to take from this study, Jacque Gerrard, the Royal College of Midwives’ director for England, told HuffPost UK Parents. “There is an overwhelming plethora of evidence supporting the health benefits of breastfeeding, showing it can prevent diabetes and obesity as babies grow older,” Gerrard noted, adding: “This is a very small study so how can you draw conclusions from it?”

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