Friday, August 5, 2016

Questionable Claims and Obesity Stigma in Breastfeeding Promotion

Image from the Center for Disease Control
It's World Breastfeeding Week ─ time to highlight the importance of breastfeeding! But not in the way this poster is doing.

I'm all for increasing breastfeeding rates. I've attended La Leche League meetings. I nursed my own four children for several years each. I've promoted breastfeeding on my website and my blog. I've helped other women with breastfeeding issues. It's hard to find a more ardent breastfeeding supporter than me.

However, today I'm going to be a heretic and offer up some criticism of breastfeeding advocacy. In particular, I have concerns with people trying to increase breastfeeding rates by promoting its potential for maternal weight loss or obesity prevention in children.

One press release from 2012 shows a typical example of hyperbole from the U.K.:
Breast-feeding may help mothers reduce the risk of obesity later in life, according to a study of 740,000 post-menopausal women in the U.K. 
For every six months women breast-fed, their body mass index was 0.22, or 1 percent, lower, even decades after giving birth, according to the research
A 1 percent reduction in BMI may seem small, but spread across the population of the U.K., that could mean about 10,000 fewer premature deaths per decade from obesity-related conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers,” Valerie Beral, co-author of the study and director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.
Similarly, many breastfeeding advocates try to raise breastfeeding rates by promoting its potential for obesity prevention in children. The United States Breastfeeding Committee, for example, has a huge campaign promoting breastfeeding as the first step to preventing obesity in children (see graphic from the CDC above). 

These two approaches go unquestioned among many breastfeeding advocates, but they are problematic for several reasons.

First, the evidence is not that strong, and second, public health campaigns using breastfeeding to promote obesity prevention are often highly stigmatizing and full of negative stereotypes. In fact, they may alienate some of the very people they want to reach out to.

A Closer Look at the Evidence

Unfortunately, if you really look at the research, evidence for breastfeeding as obesity prevention in either mother or baby is modest at best.

Maternal Effects

Care providers are concerned about the potential for postpartum weight retention to increase a woman's weight long-term. I understand the concern. Long-term retention of pregnancy weight gain can be a factor in obesity for some women.

But although long-term breastfeeding after birth does result in quicker loss of pregnancy weight for some women, the effect tends to be modest in the research, and not all women find breastfeeding is helpful in postpartum weight loss. A few even find that they don't really lose those final pregnancy pounds until after weaning.

A large research review from the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (Evidence Analysis Library Division) found:
A moderate body of consistent evidence shows that breastfeeding may be associated with maternal post-partum weight loss. However this weight loss is small, transient, and depends on breastfeeding intensity and duration.
Other meta-analyses have found that the relationship between breastfeeding and post-partum weight retention is very complicated, and definitive proof of benefit is difficult to show.

For maternal weight loss, breastfeeding can be helpful for some women, but in large groups, the effect is not particularly strong.  

The 2012 press release quoted above argues that a 1% reduction in BMI across the board could prevent 10,000 deaths per decade. This is highly speculative. A 1% reduction of BMI is very small and its effects would also probably be small. Their conclusion likely inflates the impact by using questionable data on the relationship between weight and mortality. Note they don't defend their statement or back it up with data; they just make broad, sweeping proclamations about the amount of lives it would save. This is the kind of overreach that is typical of these campaigns.

Furthermore, promoting breastfeeding for weight loss can backfire. A 2011 study found:
Belief that breastfeeding could aid postpartum weight loss was initially high, but unrelated to breastfeeding initiation or intensity. Maintenance of this belief over time, however, was associated with lower lactation scores. BMI was negatively correlated with breastfeeding initiation and intensity. Among overweight and obese women, unrealistic expectations regarding the effect of breastfeeding on weight loss may negatively impact breastfeeding duration.
If you promote breastfeeding as THE way to control weight and then that effect doesn't appear, there is likely to be a backlash. Stop creating unrealistic expectations in women and focus on breastfeeding's other benefits to them.

Effects on Offspring Obesity

Some studies do link breastfeeding with lower obesity rates in children later in life, especially in children at higher risk. While I believe this effect is real to some extent, I have real reservations about touting these studies.

There is more than a tinge of fat-phobia and mother-blaming in the media spin on these studies. The implication is that if you would just breastfeed your baby, it's very unlikely he'll be fat. And that just doesn't match the experience of many people.

Anecdotally, many high-BMI women have breastfed children for a year or more and still have children with weights considered "above normal." Unlike what researchers assume, this is not because we are force-feeding our children junk food or letting them play video games all day. Clearly, there are multiple influences on a child's weight, but genetics is one of the strongest. Breastfeeding does not overcome a strong genetic predisposition to obesity.

Yes, there are some studies that suggest that breastfed babies tend to be less heavy on average, but there are so many other confounding variables in these studies that it's hard to draw definitive conclusions. When other variables are controlled for, not all studies show that breastfeeding is protective against obesity.

For example, a recent large study from the Netherlands shows that breastfeeding did not protect against higher body weight. Although the study did the usual hyperventilating about the "dangers" of pediatric obesity, the authors did acknowledge the weaknesses of promoting breastfeeding for obesity prevention. One of the authors stated:
"It's important not to say things like, 'if you breast-feed your baby, he will not become obese.' " 
This is not the only study that found that breastfeeding was not protective against overweight status. A 2007 study found that having been breastfed as a child did not significantly influence women's adult weight status.

In addition, a randomized controlled trial in Belarus aimed to examine whether increasing breastfeeding rates at the population level prevented pediatric obesity. They succeeded in substantially raising the breastfeeding rates, yet this did not translate into reduced childhood obesity rates. The authors concluded:
Breastfeeding has many advantages but population strategies to increase the duration and exclusivity of breastfeeding are unlikely to curb the obesity epidemic.
This study has been criticized because it increased breastfeeding only modestly and mostly short-term. It still had low long-term breastfeeding rates and did not compare fully formula-fed babies with fully breastfed babies. These are legitimate criticisms. It may be that more differences between the groups would become clear with higher rates of extended breastfeeding and more clear delineations between exclusive formula use and exclusive breastfeeding. Yet the fact that little effect was found despite increased rates is troubling. You would think there would have been some impact.

Another unique study attempted to correct for other variables by looking at siblings within the same family who were fed differently. The strength of this study is that by using siblings in the same family, it corrects for education and socio-economic status and other variables which can strongly influence outcomes. Tellingly, it found virtually no difference in adiposity levels between breastfed and formula-fed siblings.

The majority of the research seems to suggest that while breastfeeding might be somewhat protective against obesity, this effect is small, may not last throughout life, and might be less important than other factors. One very pro-breastfeeding review concluded:
From current available data, any effects of breastfeeding on childhood obesity are likely not large, and tend to be most noted when formula feeding is compared with longer durations of breastfeeding.
The research picture on the effect of breastfeeding on obesity rates is far more muddled than clear. We need to be careful about overstating its effects, and we need to be careful about the language we use when we talk about certain benefits. In particular, its promotion for obesity prevention is questionable. A more accurate description is that breastfeeding may lower the risk for obesity. Although even that is not proven, this phrasing is much more defensible.

From my own review of the research, I believe that breastfeeding probably is associated with a modestly reduced risk of obesity on a population-wide basis, but that most of this effect is due to other variables and probably only short-term. Whatever the impact of exclusive breastfeeding on weight is, it's debatable how important that really is for public health.

Since breastfeeding has many other benefits that are quite clear, it seems more logical to be promoting these, rather than touting breastfeeding as a cure-all for obesity. 

Obesity Bias in Research 

Why might breastfeeding lower the risk for obesity at all? No one knows for sure, but even in the speculations obesity bias rears its ugly head.

The reasoning from the experts is filled with fat-phobic assumptions. For example, experts often imply that bottle-fed babies develop "unnaturally large" appetites because of passive intake vs. breastfed babies' self-regulated intake. This plays into the stereotype that fat kids have little self-control and over-consume food.

Or they state that breastfed babies are more likely to be willing to try new foods like fruits and vegetables. This plays into the stereotype that that obese kids don't eat fruits and vegetables. Because everyone knows that fat kids mostly eat junk food, right?

It's hard to separate researchers' fat-phobic stereotyping from plausible biological mechanisms. The best size-neutral guess is that breastfeeding lowers the risk for insulin resistance among children (which may in turn blunt the risk for diabetes and lower the tendency to gain weight), and it may promote a healthier gut microbiome, which in turn might lead to a lower risk for obesity. That seems quite plausible without relying on obesity stereotypes of over-consumption and poor eating habits.

So there could a biological foundation to the argument that breastfeeding might lower the risk for obesity. But prevent obesity completely? Probably not. There are too many other factors at work. It's far too simplistic to say that breastfeeding protects against obesity.

Furthermore, we need to watch the parent-blaming in these studies. For example, a short-term recent study found that longer breastfeeding was more protective in infants at the most risk for obesity, but that the effect wasn't as strong as hoped. An analysis of the study pointed out that maternal smoking and low education levels were also associated with higher weight, and that there was a lack of information about other feeding behaviors. The implication is that breastfeeding is not enough to overcome bad behavior in the parents. The author concludes:
So, does breastfeeding lower the risk of childhood obesity? My conclusion is yes; but only in infants at higher risk for obesity and [who] are breastfed for longer durations. In addition, as obesity is multifactorial, breastfeeding alone is unlikely to entirely prevent it.
Another author, writing about breastfeeding and childhood obesity, concludes:
The overall consensus is that breastfeeding provides protective factors, but can be mitigated by other factors (i.e. maternal health, environmental, SES, etc.) and should not be considered as an independent factor for obesity prevention.
In other words, those ignorant fat parents can overcome the benefits of breastfeeding by providing an unhealthy home environment and being too uneducated to change their own obesity or develop better health habits. Genetics? Total excuse. Any obesity must be the parents' fault, even if they breastfeed.

Yeah. As a fat parent, that sure makes me want to breastfeed.

Public Health Campaign Stigma

Another problem with promoting breastfeeding to prevent obesity is the biased attitudes these campaigns reinforce and the highly stigmatizing images they use.

(Because formula-feeding your baby is like feeding him candy bars.
And heaven knows that all formula-fed babies are fat and all
breastfed babies are skinny, right?)
Here is an image from a doctor's presentation that basically compares formula use with feeding your baby multiple candy bars a week. The apparent result is a chubby-cheeked sumo baby with multiple fat folds. What, no breastfed baby has ever had chubby cheeks and fat dimples?

And if the figure cited at the bottom is true, surely 30,000 more calories would ensure that all formula-fed babies would be fat and all breastfed ones would be thin. Unless perhaps there are other factors at work too? But heaven forbid those be acknowledged.

Even the articles that admit that a breastfed baby can be at the top of the weight charts usually then blame the baby's weight on the mother's nursing too much and suggest restricting nursing or giving a pacifier. Always a child's weight is blamed on over-consumption and restriction is promoted as the answer. Yet the answers are usually far more complex.

Image from article called
"Breastfeeding is the First Defense Against Obesity"
Here is another image from an article about breastfeeding for preventing obesity. The image has since been taken off of the article, but the fact that it was ever on there in the first place says a great deal about the assumptions and biases of the people promoting these campaigns.

Notice how the little boy (wearing too-small clothes) is gleefully surrounded by cake, ice cream, and lots of candy. Articles like this often use troubling images that strongly reinforce stereotypes about obesity and which likely increase obesity stigma and discrimination.

The image used for a blog post about preventing obesity
through breastfeeding, written by a lactation consultant (IBCLC)
Here's another image from a similar article ─ written by an influential professional lactation consultant, no less! Notice the too-small shirt, the hanging belly, and the prominent sweets (not one but TWO ice cream cones). Because you know that all obese children are that way because they are gorging on sweets and stuffing themselves to the max.

Here is an image from an article about a U.S. breastfeeding promotion campaign. It has the image of a breastfeeding woman of size, which is so rare that it should be a positive thing ─ but it's not. How typical that one of the very few images you can find of a woman of size breastfeeding is from a campaign that assumes that the diet of a high-BMI woman couldn't possibly be normal or healthy. The fact that the woman of size is also a woman of color makes it even more stigmatizing.

As a fat mother, I can tell you that these kinds of ads and articles make me want to breastfeed less, not more. In fact, they piss me off no end.

My Experience

In defiance of images like these, I breastfed my four kids for about 2.5 to 4 years each. That's a cumulative total of somewhere around 10 years. So if anyone should have seen a reduction in maternal BMI due to breastfeeding, it should have been me! Yet I didn't. I know many other women of size who also had a similar experience.

But surely all that breastfeeding reduced obesity in my children, right? I did all the "right" things. Not only was each child breastfed for multiple years (not months), I don't smoke, I am highly educated, I had a very small weight gain in pregnancy, we are in a higher socio-economic group, I didn't work outside the home for years, and I didn't introduce solids before 6 months. According to the research, they should be close to average-sized, right?

Nope. My first three children have a BMI near the top of the Class I obesity range, about where I was at their ages. I'm sure that critics will blame me by claiming that an obesogenic environment trumps everything (no doubt believing I force-fed them chocolate-covered french fries), but really, we did a great deal to promote healthy eating and exercise. Their habits were better than many of the children around them, but they were still fat.

On the other hand, my fourth child is skinny as the day is long, despite eating the same food and having the same genetic background as the rest of the kids. She didn't breastfeed longer or exercise more than the others; she simply seems to have benefited from a lucky throw of the genetics dice. She just took after a different branch of the family tree, apparently.

Same parents, same gene pool, same food, same environment, similar basic breastfeeding period ─ yet they have far different outcomes. Sure, that's only one family's experience, but I think it demonstrates that there are no simple answers here. And that's what I object to ─ the simplistic and stigmatizing messages that experts are putting out about breastfeeding and obesity.


Breastfeeding is amazing. So many health benefits come along with breastfeeding! It has a lot of short-term benefits in lowering the risk for illness in young children. It has a lot of long-term benefits in terms of metabolic improvements, lower risk for breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes, heart disease etc. in mothers.

In this country (and many others), far too few babies are breastfed. Even among those whose mothers do nurse, breastfeeding last only a few months, instead of the years it was biologically designed for. The public health implications from such low rates of breastfeeding are perfectly valid topics for discussion.

But when breastfeeding is promoted as a well-intentioned but biased bludgeon to "prevent" obesity, I start getting cranky. I've held my tongue about it for too long. It's time to call out the breastfeeding advocates who distort the science and promote obesity stigma in trying to increase breastfeeding rates.

Look at the following breastfeeding advocacy poster.

Lowering the risk of obesity is the top benefit listed. Really? If there is an effect on obesity, it's quite small. Frankly, other benefits are FAR more important. (At least the poster does use the phrase, "lowers the risk for." That's something. Too many campaigns are using words like "prevent" or "protect from" obesity.)

Let's be clear about what needs to change in breastfeeding advocacy:

  1. Breastfeeding campaigns need to stop overstating the evidence. The research shows that breastfeeding is unlikely to prevent obesity. We can mention that it might lower the risk somewhat, but even then most of the difference is attributable to other variables
  2. We need to de-emphasize weight loss or obesity prevention as motivations in breastfeeding advocacy materials. Focus instead on other benefits that are far more clear and evidence-based
  3. We need to be very careful about the language and images we use to discuss weight and breastfeeding. We need to eliminate the assumptions and stereotyping about obesity in breastfeeding research and drop the stigmatizing images used in breastfeeding campaigns
I'm ALL for promoting breastfeeding, but the truth is that weight is complex. A lot of fat women breastfeed and never lose weight, and a lot of fat women breastfeed for years and still have fat children. There are also plenty of formula-fed children who are thin. Breastfeeding is just not the weight cure-all that authorities want it to be and we need to stop telling people that it is. 

Stop using "obesity prevention" as a way to promote breastfeeding. Focus on the MANY other benefits which are far more clear in the research. And stop playing on societal fears and obesity stigma in breastfeeding advocacy materials. 

No comments: