Childhood obesity can be caused by prenatal factors, includling the mother’s weight, says the new director of a major NIH study.

Although the public health community has been trying to address the childhood obesity epidemic for years, progress has been disappointing. Often, governments or schools will make a single policy change — more fruit in school lunches, no soda machines in parks — only to find no effect.

Matthew W. Gillman has some ideas why. He is a pediatrician, a former professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and is now the director of a seven-year, $1.15 billion study by the National Institutes of Health — a study named ECHO, for Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes. Research that Gillman and others have conducted over the past 15 years indicates that the origins of obesity lie as much in early childhood — even prenatally and intergenerationally — as it does in an individual’s current behavior. He spoke with The Post recently about what science can tell us about kids and obesity.

Q: Recent research seems to suggest that whether someone is obese may be determined even before they are born.

A: What happens at the earliest stages of human development — even before birth — has long-lasting, sometimes lifelong, sometimes irreversible consequences.

There are a number of things, prenatally and early postnatally, that predict obesity, and more in combination than they do singly. We think about the weight of the mom coming into pregnancy, about how much weight the mother gains during pregnancy, whether or not she develops gestational diabetes. We just published a paper in Pediatrics that showed that moms who consume larger amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages during the second trimester have kids with higher [body mass index, or BMI] at school age. Rapid weight gain in the first six months of life, early introduction of solid foods, the less sleep you get as an infant — all of these make it more likely you will be obese as a child.

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