Preventing obesity from early childhood

What role do factors in early life play in determining growth and obesity in later life?

Dr Miaobing (Jazzmin) Zheng, an NHMRC Early Career Fellowship researcher at IPAN, is investigating what determines growth trajectories and obesity in early childhood.

Given the high prevalence of childhood obesity, there is a pressing need to address obesity prevention early in life. In Australia, 25 per cent of children are overweight or obese. This figure rises to 67 per cent in adults. With these numbers come significant health implications, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

We know rapid growth during infancy is a potent risk factor for obesity, with infants experiencing rapid growth 3.7 times more likely to be obese in later life. Early behavioural factors including dietary intake, sedentary behaviour, physical activity, and sleep determine growth and subsequent obesity risk.

Dr Zheng is studying the effects of infant feeding, early dietary and behavioural factors on growth patterns and later obesity. A better understanding of the developmental trajectories of growth in early life and its determinants will help guide obesity prevention strategies.


1. Maternal and postnatal factors

Using the results of two INFANT studies of more than 900 children, Dr Zheng analysed mothers’ country of birth, pre-pregnancy BMI (Body Mass Index), and education; and child’s postnatal rapid growth, sex and gestational age.

Children who experienced postnatal rapid growth, and whose mothers were Australian born and overweight/obese pre-pregnancy showed less favourable growth trajectories in early childhood.

2. Early infant feeding

Again using INFANT data, this study examined infants who were breastfed up to 6 months, with solids introduced from 6 months.

Infants who were breastfed longer than 6 months were associated with more favourable growth patterns in early childhood (birth to 5 years). Breastfeeding duration had a more profound effect on BMI growth than timing of solids introduction.

3. Early dietary/behavioural factors

Jazzmin has been examining lifestyle patterns at 18, 42 and 60 months, specifically:

  • discretionary food and screen time
  • fruit and vegetable consumption and outdoor time.

Results from this study are yet to be published.

Next steps

Dr Zheng will continue to explore these research questions in different population groups and investigate the the underlying mechanisms.