Breastfeeding and healthcare financing. Is there a connection?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

April 2009

The most costly diseases in America are related to lifestyle, not genetics: coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke and type 2 diabetes. All of these, as well as osteoporosis, have their roots in infancy and whether or not a mother breastfeeds can make a difference half a century later.

Obesity is clearly a major factor in the cost of healthcare. A baby that is breastfed is less likely to become obese although the beneficial effect of breastfeeding is less obvious after the age of about six years. By first grade, overfeeding, junk food and TV watching begin to contribute to childhood obesity no matter how the infant was fed during its first year. That's one reason why studies that explore the link between breastfeeding and obesity are inconclusive. To quote one author, "Prolonged breastfeeding may be insufficient to overcome these powerful lifestyle issues."

Not all overweight kids become overweight adults but most of them do. Heart disease, the leading cause of death in adults, begins in childhood. Autopsy studies of children who die in accidents show narrowing of blood vessels that used to take several decades to develop. Type 2 diabetes, which seldom occurs in persons who have a normal percentage of body fat, is skyrocketing. Complications of diabetes such as blindness, amputations and kidney failure are no longer unheard of in twenty-somethings.

Prolonged breastfeeding (at least one year) is clearly only part of the solution but it's a large part. Some breastfed babies look a little scrawny compared to their formula (over)fed counterparts but their growth is quite normal for humans. During my practice years I occasionally had to reassure a mother that her exclusively breastfed infant was, indeed, not as chubby as her friends' formula-fed babies, but quite normal.

The World Health Organization (WHO) finally acknowledged that infant growth charts that had been developed during the 1970s were wrong because they were based on measurements of mostly formula-fed children. For two- and three-year old toddlers they were about 15-20 percent too high.

A Canadian nutritionist summarized it clearly: "Using breastfed children as the norm for growth is a critical development in the reduction of the overweight and obesity epidemic."

Finally, somebody gets it!

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.