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Arnold School of Public Health

Doctoral students publish high impact study on relationship between pregnancy weight gain and childhood obesity

November 29, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, 

Recent Arnold School graduates Junxiu Liu (epidemiology, Ph.D.) and Xinling Xu (biostatistics, Ph.D.) have published a paper on the relationship between prenatal weight gain and offspring’s weight outcomes at late infancy and six years of age. The study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, was conducted while the researchers were doctoral students in the Arnold School's epidemiology and biostatistics department and was directed by professors Jihong Liu and James Hardin.

While it is common knowledge that the rising prevalence of childhood obesity is a major public health issue in the United States, there is limited research about how prenatal and early life factors interact and predict the development of childhood obesity. “Gestational weight gain, birth weight and breastfeeding duration are all known modifiable risk factors for childhood obesity,” says Xu, who is now a biostatistician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “However, few studies have examined the complex and mediating roles of birthweight and breastfeeding duration on the association of gestational weight gain and childhood obesity.” 

The findings from their longitudinal study point to a stronger indirect, rather than a direct, effect of gestational weight gain on offspring’s weight outcomes, primarily through birth weight. This relationship is independent of maternal sociodemographic and reproductive factors and children’s weight-related behaviors. They also found that longer breastfeeding duration might suppress the positive relationship between gestational weight gain and birth weight and weight outcomes in late infancy but not among six-year-olds.

While the sample of participants examined in this study was well distributed throughout the United States, it is not a true representative sample of the country. Therefore, the researchers recommend that these findings be verified through future studies with other cohorts and geographic areas. Additional research should also consider the effect of exclusive breastfeeding on children’s weight status.

As recent alumni, Liu and Xu are both grateful for the preparation they received at the Arnold School to begin their new careers—particularly the rich mentorship environment. “I deem my peer learning experience and mentorship from professors through courses or projects at USC as being critical in preparing me to become a promising researcher,” says Liu, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School of Nutrition Sciences and Policy at Tufts University with funding support from the American Heart Association.

“I met so many inspiring scholars and researchers through my Ph.D. program in biostatistics,” adds Xu of her mentorship experiences. “I highly recommend the programs at Arnold School of Public Health where many students here are very passionate about their research, and are wholeheartedly striving to improve human life. You will very likely to find someone who shares the same passion to collaborate with here.”    

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