In the U.S., excess gestational weight gain (EGWG) is a common public health concern that poses long-term risks for obesity and related health problems in women, and possibly, their children. To help address the problem, School of Public Health Assistant Professor Susan Mason recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct a first-of-its-kind study to see if women who suffered abuse or neglect in childhood are at greater risk for gaining excess weight in pregnancy.
“We know that these women are at elevated risk for developing obesity outside of pregnancy,” says Mason. “We also now have preliminary evidence that women with early life adversity have significantly elevated risks of EGWG — even if their weight appears controlled prior to pregnancy — suggesting that this is a time of vulnerability for these women.”
To delve deeper into the link between EGWG and early life adversity, Mason is surveying a large population of mothers who’ve been in the school’s long-running Project EAT study since childhood. Project EAT is a multi-decade study that is tracking the health, experiences, and behaviors of thousands of people beginning in adolescence. Mason will use Project EAT and medical records data to identify women who’ve experienced EGWG and examine whether the risk of the condition is higher in those with a childhood history of neglect or abuse.
Mason said the study will also see if mothers who’ve experience EGWG exhibit any contributing traits, such as depression or binge eating, that could reveal the pathway to their excessive weight gain.
The results of the study will be used to design interventions supporting women with adverse life events during pregnancy, with a focus on helping them gain healthful amounts of gestational weight. The goal is to offer these vulnerable women tailored strategies for healthy weight maintenance that they can continue using throughout life.