Childhood predictors of adult obesity: a systematic review

Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1999 Nov:23 Suppl 8:S1-107.


Objective: To identify factors in childhood which might influence the development of obesity in adulthood.

Background: The prevalence of obesity is increasing in the UK and other developed countries, in adults and children. The adverse health consequences of adult obesity are well documented, but are less certain for childhood obesity. An association between fatness in adolescence and undesirable socio-economic consequences, such as lower educational attainment and income, has been observed, particularly for women. Childhood factors implicated in the development of adult obesity therefore have far-reaching implications for costs to the health-services and economy.

Search strategy: In order to identify relevant studies, electronic databases--Medline, Embase, CAB abstracts, Psyclit and Sport Discus-were searched from the start date of the database to Spring 1998. The general search structure for electronic databases was (childhood or synonyms) AND (fatness or synonyms) AND (longitudinal or synonyms). Further studies were identified by citations in retrieved papers and by consultation with experts.

Inclusion criteria: Longitudinal observational studies of healthy children which included measurement of a risk factor in childhood (<18 y), and outcome measure at least 1 y later. Any measure of fatness, leanness or change in fatness or leanness was accepted. Measures of fat distribution were not included. Only studies with participants from an industrialized country were considered, and those concerning minority or special groups, e.g. Pima Indians or children born preterm, were excluded.

Findings: Risk factors for obesity included parental fatness, social factors, birth weight, timing or rate of maturation, physical activity, dietary factors and other behavioural or psychological factors. Offspring of obese parent(s) were consistently seen to be at increased risk of fatness, although few studies have looked at this relationship over longer periods of childhood and into adulthood. The relative contributions of genes and inherited lifestyle factors to the parent-child fatness association remain largely unknown. No clear relationship is reported between socio-economic status (SES) in early life and childhood fatness. However, a strong consistent relationship is observed between low SES in early life and increased fatness in adulthood. Studies investigating SES were generally large but very few considered confounding by parental fatness. Women who change social class (social mobility) show the prevalence of obesity of the class they join, an association which is not present in men. The influence of other social factors such as family size, number of parents at home and childcare have been little researched. There is good evidence from large and reasonably long-term studies for an apparently clear relationship for increased fatness with higher birth weight, but in studies which attempted to address potential confounding by gestational age, parental fatness, or social group, the relationship was less consistent. The relationship between earlier maturation and greater subsequent fatness was investigated in predominantly smaller, but also a few large studies. Again, this relationship appeared to be consistent, but in general, the studies had not investigated whether there was confounding by other factors, including parental fatness, SES, earlier fatness in childhood, or dietary or activity behaviours. Studies investigating the role of diet or activity were generally small, and included diverse methods of risk factor measurement. There was almost no evidence for an influence of activity in infancy on later fatness, and inconsistent but suggestive evidence for a protective effect of activity in childhood on later fatness. No clear evidence for an effect of infant feeding on later fatness emerged, but follow-up to adulthood was rare, with only one study measuring fatness after 7y. Studies investigating diet in childhood were limited and inconc

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Birth Weight
  • Child
  • Energy Intake
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Exercise
  • Female
  • Health Behavior
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Obesity / etiology*
  • Obesity / genetics
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Risk Factors
  • Socioeconomic Factors