face of an overweight child
Image by Ri Butov

The origins of obesity are deep and wide, beginning at conception and even earlier. To consider an individual with obesity, we need to view that person as a biological, emotional, and spiritual being in a historical and social context. I was that person. I was overweight as a child and had no idea how to lose weight or find spiritual ground until I became an adult.

My mom smoked and drank every day of her pregnancy with me. I know my mother struggled with her own issues around weight for her whole life, as she frequently quoted Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor (who she resembled), “you can never be too rich or too thin.” It is most likely that I experienced nutritional deficits in the womb as my mother concurrently smoked a pack of cigarettes a day (this was 1948 when 75 percent of pregnant woman smoked) and drank two or three scotch and waters every evening.

During my younger brother’s pregnancy, my mom was told she was too thin and needed to gain weight, so the doctor put her on drinking an extra six-pack of beer every day! Yes, it was a medical prescription in 1951.

Factors included in the known influences on the development of obesity are:

  • Epigenetics: transgenerational imprinting

  • Nutrition (both inadequate and excessive calories)

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  • Chemical exposure

  • Microbiome

  • Stress

Epigenetics: Transgenerational Imprinting

The ovum that became you resided inside your mother as she gestated in your grandmother. Quite literally, your physical beginning was once encased within three female generations at the same time. This reality has lasting and profound effects as the environment on one generation enfolds the next. The ovum that originates in a time of scarcity is overprepared (imprinted) if the resulting individual is subsequently raised in a time of excess.

A dear friend of mine is an active, lovely woman with Class III obesity (high-risk). Nutritionists have been baffled with her obesity since her calorie intake, type of nutrition, and activity level would predict a much smaller body habitus. But epigenetics can give a clue. She “existed” as an egg in her midwestern grandmother in the dust bowl during the Great Depression. This same egg then basked in the nutritional wealth of postwar Southern California.

After conception, this egg was gestated inside a woman encouraged to minimize weight gain by taking appetite suppressants (a.k.a. speed or amphetamines). As an ovum, then an embryo, and then a fetus, her cells were programmed to maximize nutrition, and now as an adult being, her cells do that exceedingly well. When viewed through the lens of epigenetics, my friend’s obesity is not baffling but a result of cellular and genetic programing over three generations. It is not just the current mother and child who are affected by suboptimal diets and/or obesity, but future generations can wind up carrying this stress imprinting. 


Ideally, every being would have good, clean, Real Food and water in the right amounts, at just the right times, and be able to dine in safety, comfort, and with good company. However, in the contemporary reality, people (including pregnant ones) distractedly consume large amounts of poor quality, highly processed foods. Thirty-three percent of Americans reportedly do not know how to cook, and many Americans have three meals a day of take out or fast food from drive-throughs.

The type and amount of nutrient and the timing of nutrition matters, especially to a developing fetus. I consider the kitchen to be the new ER because the kitchen is the hearth, the place where love is placed into food during preparation, and love is the original, the most important medicine.

Both low and high maternal weight gain during pregnancy create the potential for negative effects on the fetus and the child after birth. Just as undernutrition is detrimental, consuming too many calories also has serious consequences for the preborn.

Excessive weight gain during pregnancy is more common now than several decades ago. Children of women who gain an excessive amount of weight during pregnancy have more than four times the risk of being overweight at age three. By age four, almost 25 percent of children are obese if their mothers had been obese in the first trimester of pregnancy compared with 9 percent of children whose mothers had been normal weight.

Mothers’ excess pregnancy weight gain and elevated blood sugar imprint obesity onto their children. Elevated blood sugar in pregnancy increases the childhood obesity rate by 30 percent, incidence of weight gain during the lifespan more than 40 percent, and a risk for increased obesity by 15 percent in the lifespan.

The effects of sugar consumption carry significant risk factors for not only obesity, but other metabolic syndromes for the child’s life span. The effect on the baby’s metabolism from prenatal exposure to excessive maternal weight gain and excess sugar consumption may be as important as what happens after the child is born.

Chemical Exposure

Pregnancy is a mine field of dos and don’ts such as: Do take prenatal vitamins. Don’t drink coffee. Many of the common dictates are not based on fact, but they are all based on concern and recognition that the maternal environment effects the developing fetus.

Cigarette smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke are also stressful to the embryo and fetus and are linked to childhood obesity, anxiety, and cardiovascular disease. Nicotine binds to receptors in the fetal brain that are the same receptors for oxygen. 


It is currently well accepted that an individual’s microbiome affects their inner well-being, including metabolism and weight. Human genes only regulate 30 percent of gut function in adults. The other 70 percent is regulated by the micro-biome. Once thought to be sterile, we now know that the fetus and placenta have small amounts of bacteria and viruses acquired during gestation entirely from the maternal system.

At the moment of birth, this baseline microbiome is inoculated with millions of microbes from the birth canal with a vaginal delivery or with different and fewer species after a surgical birth (C-section). A mother’s breast milk contains prebiotics that provide a seeding of the intestinal microbiome of the baby.

Commercially-made infant formulas are chemical concoctions that strive to imitate human-made milk. While crucial for some babies’ survival, they are detrimental to the intestinal tract of an infant for short- and long-term well-being outcomes. Skin-to-skin contact between a caregiver and a newborn baby also seeds the baby’s body with the caregiver’s microbiome. Optimal time for skin-to-skin contact is four to five hours a day in the first days after birth. Skin-to-skin contact is not only building a beneficial microbiome, but also enhancing the infant’s thermal regulation and appropriate appetite while also increasing the emotional and physical bond between caregiver and child.


Recent research has identified prenatal stress as a serious detriment to the immediate and long-term well-being of the embryo, fetus, infant, and adult. Many women and girls who are pregnant report experiencing high levels of stress in their lives and feel they have little time and limited resources to fulfill their needs in appropriate ways. This stress may be past, recent, or chronic.

Pregnant women and girls may experience traumatic stress symptoms and PTSD during pregnancy, which may be associated with pregnancy complications that impact the well-being and development of their offspring, including their birth weight and length of gestation. Some women who have experienced rape, a particularly severe and overwhelming stress event, may choose overeating to protect themselves, what I call Obesity Safety Insulation.

One explanation for weight gain in those with a history of child sexual abuse is binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder is at least six times more common in people with obesity and three to four times more common in people with obesity who report a history of childhood sexual abuse. The effects of child sexual abuse (poor self-esteem, poor body image, impulsive behavior, and drug abuse) are common predictors of binge eating and obesity. Compulsive eating may be an attempt to manage the mental care issues resulting from childhood sexual abuse.

Fetuses can become obese along with their obese mother. Fetal programming for obesity may cause a newborn baby within weeks after birth to become obese. 

Childhood overweight and obesity has increased dramatically during the past several decades in both developing and developed countries. This presents a significant challenge to health care systems in developing countries, which are poorly equipped to deal with such problems.

Factors Playing a Role in Childhood Obesity

  • Epigenetic factors

  • Family history (especially parents or siblings that are obese or overweight)

  • Gestation and early infant feeding

  • Early childhood trauma

  • Lifestyle and activity level

  • Excessive screen time (TV, iPads, video games, smart phones . . .)

  • Role models for diet, exercise, self-image

Major contributors to the development of childhood obesity are overeating processed food, not enough exercise, and excessive screen time. A poor diet, what is commonly called Standard American Diet (SAD), containing high levels of processed food and sugar, can cause children to gain weight quickly. Highly processed foods such as fast food, prepackaged foods, candy bars, protein bars, smoothies, “pouches” and soda are common challenges for contemporary children.

Too many parents and their children eat most of their meals from drive-in fast-food chains. Some people eat all their daily meals from such places. Children who only stop drinking soda can lose significant weight.

Robert Lustig, at the University of California San Francisco, has started the Real Food movement to improve childhood and adult nutrition. The United States Department of Health and Human Services reports that 32 percent of adolescent girls and 52 percent of adolescent boys in the United States drink twenty-four ounces of soda or more per day.

Sugar is now known to be addictive. It is a dose-dependent chemical toxin. Sugar activates the dopamine addiction pathways in the brain and reduces serotonin well-being pathways in both the brain and the gut. Even one ten or twelve-ounce can of soda activates the addiction centers in the brain that are run by dopamine. Over time, as the dopamine system takes over, the serotonin system in the gut is severely compromised. The receptor sites in the brain for sugar are the same receptor sites for addictive drugs like cocaine.

With SAD, we are creating a generation of addicts. These obese (and sugar addicted) children become obese adults. Research has shown that, unfortunately, less than 10 percent of obese adults are ever able to lose their excess weight, keep it off, and sustain a normal weight.

Childhood obesity can cause body dysmorphia, a mental challenge like a body image problem on steroids. It is a mental disorder in which a person cannot stop thinking about defects or flaws in their appearance. It is a flaw that appears minor and cannot be seen by others. A person suffering from body dysmorphia may feel so embarrassed, ashamed, and anxious that they may avoid many social situations. The misperceived flaw and resulting obsessional behaviors cause a significant distress and impact one’s ability to function in daily life.

Common Problems in Childhood Obesity

  • onset of type 2 diabetes

  • heart disease

  • asthma

  • sleep disorders

  • orthopedic problems such as chronic pain because of too much pressure on the joints

Prenatal and Childhood Obesity

When looking at this information on prenatal and childhood obesity, the enormity of the problem at a social, cultural, and individual level is seen. Major commitments are necessary at the level of government policy regarding food and nutrition, but that is difficult since the USDA will not lower the recommended amount of sugar in a child’s diet nor are they willing to recommend a reduction in processed carbohydrates.

It is through the individual that change must happen. I recently saw this aphorism on the internet: “Stop asking why the government isn’t doing what’s in your best interest. Save your own life!” Eat Real Food.

Disorders caused by diet need to heal by diet. Pregnant people and the next generation they are carrying need community gardens, kindness, and love, not more junk food.

Copyright 2022. All Rights Reserved.
Adapted with permission of the publisher,
Healing Arts Press, an imprint of Inner Traditions Intl.

Article Source:

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