Helping Americans Achieve Public Health Goals: Breastfeeding and Obesity Prevention


Washington, DC—As the country celebrates National Public Health Week, there is much discussion of how the United States is falling behind in many important health measures, despite the fact that we spend more on health care than any other nation. Yet amid the talk about life expectancy, infant mortality, and health disparities among minority populations, the very earliest act of disease prevention—breastfeeding—is often overlooked.

The evidence for the value of breastfeeding to children’s and women’s health is scientific, solid, and continually being reaffirmed by new research. Medical experts agree with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in recommending exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for the first year of life and beyond. The comprehensive review and analysis of breastfeeding research released in 2007 by the DHHS Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality strongly supports the evidence demonstrated in the research:

  • For the child: reduced risk of ear, skin, stomach, and respiratory infections, diarrhea, sudden infant death syndrome, and necrotizing enterocolitis; and in the longer term, reduced risk of obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, asthma, and childhood leukemia.
  • For the mother: reduced risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and postpartum depression.

The alarming rise in obesity rates alone presents a daunting challenge to the health of many Americans. Results from the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) show that among adults age 20 years and over the prevalence of obesity was 34%, more than doubling from a rate of 15% in the 1976-1980 survey. Comparison of data from NHANES surveys over the same time period (1976–1980; 2003–2006) shows that the prevalence of childhood obesity also has increased: more than doubling for those aged 2–11 years and more than tripling for those aged 12–19 years.

Obesity has serious implications for the health of Americans, increasing the risk of many diseases and conditions, including: coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancers, high blood pressure, stroke, liver and gallbladder disease, sleep apnea and respiratory problems, osteoarthritis, and gynecological problems. Multiple studies have shown that a history of not breastfeeding increases the risk of being overweight or obese in adolescence and adult life. USBC Chair Joan Younger Meek, MD, MS, RD, FAAP, FABM, IBCLC affirms breastfeeding’s important role in obesity prevention and public health:

“When investigating the relationships between breastfeeding and obesity,” says Dr. Meek, “both the duration and exclusivity of breastfeeding must be considered. The duration of breastfeeding has been shown to be inversely related to overweight—meaning that the longer the duration of breastfeeding, the lower the odds of overweight. And although further research is needed, exclusive breastfeeding appears to have a stronger protective effect than breastfeeding combined with formula feeding.”

USBC urges all Americans to practice healthy living habits, including engaging in regular physical activity and following a healthy eating plan. It is recommended that breastfeeding and lactating mothers take in about 2700 calories every day (about 500 calories more than a non-pregnant, non-breastfeeding woman). For more information on having a healthy diet, see the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

For more information about breastfeeding, visit The National Women’s Health Information Center. Physicians and other health care providers can offer assistance and answer questions about breastfeeding, and knowledgeable breastfeeding support personnel can be located through the International Lactation Consultant Association, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program, and La Leche League International.

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