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Fast growth in early childhood increases risk of overweight in adolescence

02 June 2010

Children who quickly put on weight between the ages of two and seven have a 25 to 35 times greater chance of developing obesity later in life. Children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy have an even higher chance. Children with symptoms of depression or who are impulsive also have a higher chance of becoming overweight. This was discovered by UMCG researcher Eryn Liem. She will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 9 June 2010.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a simple measure that is used internationally to classify overweight and obesity, both in adults and in children. It is calculated as weight divided by height squared. For children, international age- and sex-specific cut-off values have been defined to determine the number of children with overweight and obesity. Worldwide, the number of oveweigt children has increased dramatically. These reveal that the number of children with obesity has increased dramatically. Research projects are shifting their emphasis from the treatment to the prevention of obesity. PhD student Eryn Liem investigated various risk factors involved in developing obesity.

TRAILS study

Liem conducted her research within the framework of TRAILS (TRacking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey), a large-scale, long-term research project on the mental, physical and social development of about 2,500 adolescents in the North of the Netherlands. The researcher examined the DNA profiles of about 1,200 sixteen-year-olds, with particular attention to genetic variations in two genes (FTO and MC4R) associated with obesity. She then compared the profiles with measures of body fat..

Risk factors for obesity

Liem discovered that weight increase particularly between the ages of two and seven years was related to an increased risk of overweight. Children who put on weight fast between two and seven years have no less than 25 to 35 times more chance of being too heavy at age 16 years. Children whose mothers smoked while pregnant have an even higher chance. Another remarkable result of the research is that the BMI at age 16 appears to be directly related to genetic variations in the two genes investigated. In other words, obesity during puberty is to a significant degree genetic. Finally, Liem concludes that 11-year-olds with symptoms of depression have more chance of being obese at age 16, as do impulsive children.

Measuring skin folds

In the second part of her thesis, the PhD student investigated which simple method would be the best  to determine the amount of body fat in children. After all, the BMI does not differentiate between muscle and fat, and other, more reliable measurement methods, such as CT and MRI, are too expensive to be used on a wide scale. From a trial in 30 six- and seven-year-old children, the PhD student concludes that measuring skin folds is the best simple method for measuring abdominal fat in the prepubertal period.

Curriculum vitae

Eryn Liem (The Hague, 1978) studied medicine at the Catholic University Leuven in Belgium. She conducted her research at the Groningen Expert Centre for Kids with Obesity (GECKO) of the University Medical Center Groningen, which was was funded by the UMCG and by a grant from Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. (Kruidvat). Liem will be awarded a PhD by the Faculty of Medical Sciences. Her supervisors were Prof. R.P. Stolk and Prof. P.J.J. Sauer. The title of her thesis is ‘Development of overweight in adolescence. Genes, Growth & Mood’. Liem is training to become a paediatrician and currently works for the Isala Clinics in Zwolle.

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Last modified:13 March 2020 01.57 a.m.
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