The Link Between Gut Bacteria and Childhood Obesity

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Recent studies estimate that up to 17% of children may be overweight or obese in the US (1). And while our electronics-crazed society and intakes of highly processed foods may be fueling the problem, a new study by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Health finds that the bacteria in our guts and how it interacts with metabolic organs such as fat tissue and immune cells, may impact the risk of obesity in children (2).

For years, the medical establishment assumed that obesity was simply a result of overconsumption of calories. But research over the past 10 years suggests that the microbes in our guts are not only linked with obesity but may be one of its key causal factors, according to Dr. Hariom Yadav, lead author and assistant professor of molecular medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine, which is part of Wake Forest Baptist.

According to the CDC, the percentage of children in the US impacted by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s. Among school-aged children, the rate of obesity is rising 2.3% annually, which is an unusually high rate. Obesity raises the risk for premature chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.

Dr. Yadav’s research was published in the most recent issue of Obesity Reviews and evaluates current studies (both animal and human) along with how the connection between the gut microbiome and immune cells can be passed from mother to baby during gestation and then be linked to obesity in children.

Yadav's review also examined how a mother’s health, food intake, physical activity, use of antibiotics, birth method (vaginal or C-section), and feeding method (breast milk or formula) could impact the risk of obesity in her children.

According to Yadav, "This compilation of current research should be very useful for doctors, nutritionists and dietitians to discuss with their patients because so many of these factors can be changed if people have enough good information. We also wanted to identify gaps in the science for future research."

Having a better comprehension of how the gut microbiome and obesity in mothers and their children will hopefully help researchers create more successful preventive  programs and treatment programs to evaluate the rise of childhood obesity, states Yadav.

Dietitians can help their clients that are pregnant or have children by doing the following:

  1. Encourage a high-fiber diet during pregnancy.
  2. Encourage a variety of fiber sources during pregnancy.
  3. Teach pregnant women about pre- and probiotics and their impact on gut bacteria.
  4. Advise clients to avoid fad diets which limit grains, beans, fruit, and other sources of dietary fiber.
  5. Advise limiting intake of high-sugar, high-fat foods during pregnancy.
  6. Serve children a wide variety of high-fiber foods from the get-go such as whole grain bread, fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes
  7. Discourage intake of highly-processed, low-fiber foods in children
  8. Encourage intake of water and avoidance of soda and sugary drinks in children

By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD


  1. Hales CM, Carroll MD, Fryar CD, Ogden CL. Prevalence of obesity among adults and youth: United States, 2015–2016. NCHS Data Brief. 2017;288:1–8
  2. Halle J. Kincaid, Ravinder Nagpal, Hariom Yadav. Microbiome?immune?metabolic axis in the epidemic of childhood obesity: Evidence and opportunities. Obesity Reviews, 2019; DOI: 10.1111/obr.12963
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