Couch potatoes may be created in the womb, not at the dinner table

(August 25, 2003) Bethesda, MD Could your child be preordained to be an overweight couch potato? New Zealand physiologists are proposing that the well-known association between obesity, metabolic syndrome, sedentary behavior, and overeating might have a common biological cause.


Obesity is an increasingly prevalent, costly, and important health problem worldwide. In Western societies such as the United States, the incidence of obesity is approximately 32 percent of the adult population, and the prevalence in children has risen by approximately 40 percent in the last 16 years. It is also rising rapidly in developing countries such as India and China as Western diets and lifestyle are adopted. Although the causes of obesity are multifactorial, these recent increases have been too sudden to be explained by genetic factors.

Population studies conducted in the last decade suggest that environmental factors active during embryonic and fetal development are of substantial consequence for the risk of developing metabolic and cardiovascular disorders in adulthood. The biological basis underlying this concept of "fetal programming" remains speculative but may involve permanent alterations in gene expression that may in turn modify tissue differentiation and hormonal and metabolic regulation.

Some members of the scientific community believe that the fetus adapts to adverse environmental cues while in the womb with permanent readjustments in homeostatic systems to aid survival. However, if these adaptations are inconsistent with the environment encountered after birth, these adaptations may lead to an increased risk of disease. Obesity is one disease associated with impaired fetal development, as children of low birth weight have been shown to develop this disorder in their adult life. However, many reports relating the fetal environment to metabolic disease and adult obesity are confounded as lifestyle influences obscure the

Contact: Donna Krupa
American Physiological Society

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