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Friday, 30 March, 2001, 23:22 GMT 00:22 UK
Obesity 'starts in the womb'
Obese man
Poor nourishment in the womb could lead to obesity
Obesity could be decided while babies are still in the womb, say researchers.

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the UK with nearly one in five people being classed as obese.

Treating obesity related illness costs the NHS between 1.7 to 1.9bn pounds each year - about 5% of all NHS expenditure.

But scientists now say that whether we become obese in later life could be decided while we are still in the womb.

If the mother is poorly nourished when pregnant their children could be obese in later life

Professor Davey Smith

Professor George Davey Smith, of the University of Bristol, told a meeting of leading obesity experts that social class and obesity and the nutrition of the mother during pregnancy play a significant part in child development.

Professor Davey Smith told the Association for the Study of Obesity that the links between obesity and class were most strongly marked in females.

He said women of the higher social classes tended to be thinner than those who were poorer.


Men with less cash tended to do more physical labour so their jobs kept them fit and slimmer.

He said: "The gradient is more marked in women."

Professor Davey Smith said that children of lower incomes tended to be normal weight until they reached young adulthood and that this was when the difference became more marked.

"The overall evidence is that for kids up to school leaving age there is no marked social differences in Body Mass Index (BMI).

"But they emerge quite soon in adulthood.

"Deprivation in childhood seems to have quite a strong influence on obesity in adulthood," he said.

He said this could be linked to behavioural patterns set in childhood - such as diet and how much exercise was taken.

But he said it was quite probable that the problems lay even further back than childhood - right back to the womb.

He said malnourished mothers were likely to have babies who later grew up to become obese.

A study in Holland towards the end of the Second World War found that women who had been pregnant during a famine had children who were obese.

The children were studied 18 years later when they were conscripted into the Dutch Army.

"If the mother is poorly nourished when pregnant their children could be obese in later life."

Professor Davey Smith said experiments on animals had also been shown to bear this out.

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