Pregnant women are supposed to gain weight but a new study suggests that many American women are getting too much of a good thing. And the negative health effects of excess weight gain last far longer than nine months.

Led by Cornell University nutritionist, Christine Olson, the study suggested that pregnant women who gain an excessive amount of weight tend to become — and remain — obese. Obesity dramatically increases a person's risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other serious illnesses.

Olson and her team looked at patterns of weight gain in 577 pregnant women and found that over 40 percent gained more weight during pregnancy than is recommended by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. Even worse, one fourth of all the pregnant women studied were at least 10 pounds heavier one year after giving birth.

According to national statistics from the Institute of Medicine, having a baby adds an average of 2.2 pounds to a woman's weight a year after giving birth. The women in the Cornell study gained an average of almost 4 pounds. "But even more disturbing," Olson says, "was the finding that most of the new cases of obesity in our study could have been prevented if the women had stayed within the recommended ranges for weight gain during pregnancy."

"I don't think anyone would have guessed that the effects of gestational weight gains are as great as they seem to be," says Olson, "Researchers had thought it was just a minor contributor to the obesity problem in this country."

Asked for her opinion of the study, TheDoctor's Susan Stewart, M.D., former president of the American Medical Women's Association, commented: "It is very heartening to see a well designed study on weight gain from pregnancy. It validates the impression of many of us internists about how our obese patients attained their excess weight. Many women look at pregnancy as "license to eat" or "license to gain weight without a penalty." But there is a penalty — life-long obesity thereafter."

The findings come on the heels of a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) drawing attention to U.S. obesity rates, which have risen by nearly 60 percent since 1991. Between 1998 and 1999, obesity climbed 6 percent nationally, affecting all regions and demographic groups. "Obesity is an epidemic and should be taken as seriously as any infectious disease epidemic," says Jeffrey P. Koplan, director of the CDC. Among women, federal statistics indicate that almost one fourth of women 25 to 55 years of age are overweight and another quarter are obese.

Numbers like these, added Dr. Stewart, underline the fact that "pregnancy is the most important time of life to eat a very nutritious diet, not empty calories like candy and baked goods that have little nutritional value. It is also a very important time to engage in moderate exercise. A woman who is in good muscular and cardiovascular shape has a much easier time bearing the extra strains of pregnancy, including delivery. They are also much better able to cope with the stressful demands of caring for a newborn baby. These women bounce back faster and more quickly regain their former body shape and tone. And there is an added benefit: women who eat nutritiously and exercise regularly will instill in their child the same good habits of eating and exercise."
Reviewed by: Susan C. Stewart, M.D.