Given that half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned

3x

Three times as many Hispanic 2- to 5-year-olds are obese as non-Hispanic white children

many fetuses are well-developed by the time women discover they're pregnant.

And while there's an undeniable link between how a mother eats and exercises during pregnancy and her baby's health outcomes at birth, the impact a woman's pre-conceptual health has on her child—her diet and activity long before conceiving—is poorly understood.

For Hispanic and Latina women, whose young children suffer from obesity at rates two to three times higher than non-Hispanic white children, the issue is particularly vexing. But a new $2.7 million grant will investigate how pre-pregnancy biomarkers and habits are linked to kids’ weight, eating and health issues, probing the unique contributions to early childhood obesity among the country’s second fast-growing population.

“This study offers us a chance to peer into an association we don’t know much about,” explains Anna Maria Siega-Riz, a nutritionist and associate dean for research at UVA School of Nursing. “This is not about criticizing mothers; it’s about taking an open and honest look at how some parents may unknowingly contribute to their child’s health problems at a very early stage in life.”

"This is not about criticizing mothers; it's about taking an open and honest look at how some parents may unknowingly contribute to their child's health problems at a very early stage in life."

Anna Maria Siega-Riz, a nutritionist and associate dean for research

Because obesity in childhood sets kids up for a lifetime of ill health—from increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and early onset of dementia, to the social stigma related to being heavy and not able to participate in sports—the stakes are high and, as the problem expands, growing higher.

Funding from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) will enable Siega-Riz and her colleagues to expand upon data from the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos, the largest study of Hispanic health ever done in the United States.

Roughly 440 mothers and young children, age three to seven, will be recruited starting this spring. Mothers will be asked about their eating habits, the regularity of family meals, their breastfeeding habits, and perceptions about their own eating and willpower. Their children will be screened for height, weight, body fat mass, and sedentary behavior, and will be given a delayed gratification task to assess whether they can wait for a treat. Through a simple cheek swab, children will also be assessed for obesity as revealed by a genetic risk score.

Mother-child dyads will be recruited from Miami, San Diego, Chicago, and the Bronx, NY. Results will scientifically inform behavioral interventions that may prevent childhood obesity, and its cascade of ill effects.

final+