Fewer Births and Lower Breastfeeding Fuel Obesity in Europe

Although obesity can be greatly attributed to under-exercising, overeating and some hormonal factors, recent studies have revealed that low birth rates and low breastfeeding rates are an important cause of obesity as well.

First Born Women Fatter?

A recent publication in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health shows that firstborn women have an averagely bigger BMI than their younger sisters. Birth order has previously proven to have an impact on height and weight in men, and researchers wanted to see if the same applies in women. And yes, it does. Using information from the Swedish Birth Register, a total of 29,000 women (13,406 pairs of sisters) born between 1978 and 1982 were involved in the research.

It was found that, initially in childhood, the average BMI of the older sisters was much lower than that of the younger ones. A turn of events then takes place during their early stages of adulthood, about three months into their first pregnancies, where the elder women’s average BMI shoots to surpass that of their younger sisters by 2.4%. This doesn’t change thereafter.

The research went on to reveal that firstborns are 29% more likely to become overweight and 40% more likely to become obese. They also proved to grow taller than their younger siblings – a finding that matched an earlier one on men.

One-Child families Fueling Obesity

The world, and especially Europe, has been experiencing a tremendous rise in the number of one-child families. Statistically, the average family in the UK is now 1.9, a 0.5 decrease from the 1980’s figure of 2.4. This only shows that the population of one-children families is increasing, which translates to a rise in percentage of obese individuals in the future adult generation.

Resource dilution hypothesis—the theory alluding that only-children are heavier, and sometimes taller, because they never got to share parental affection, food, and other family resources with other siblings during their childhood—vindicates the typically bulkier nature of firstborns, who were once only-children. Another considerable explanation as revealed by yet another research is that firstborn children suffer pre-birth malnutrition, a condition which the body makes up for by creating larger fat stores, only to have it haunt these children later in their lives.

Whatever the reason, the steady decline in the average family size being experienced currently is highly contributive towards the rise in obesity cases. The number of only-child families is increasing, meaning; the number of firstborns is increasing as well.

According to Professor Wayne Cutfield of The University of Oakland, fighting semi-congenital obesity is really hard, and such factors as economic constraints and one-child government policies make it even harder.

Low breast feeding contributive too

Britain is notorious for its extremely low rates of breastfeeding, with not more than one in five women breastfeeding their children for the recommended six months. That comes with a consequence. The nation is now among the worst child obesity-hit in Europe, a new research reveals. The research, which collects child weight data from 28 European countries, shows that only Ireland has more cases of overweight or obese children.

Bottle-feeding, the traditional breast-milk substitute, has been shown to be 15-25% more likely to cause obesity later in a child’s life due to its higher levels of protein.

Rebecca Jones of Emory University, who conducted the research, believes that the lower obesity rates experienced in other countries in the world can be put down to proper breastfeeding practices, a result of mothers having a better knowledge of the likely consequences of not breastfeeding their children.

More like a wake-up call for the British government, Rebecca had this to say, “Recent research has attributed long-term health to childhood nutrition status, increasing the need to have young populations at the forefront of what should be discussed and targeted during policy making.”

EU fertility statistics

We can better understand the relationship between birth rates and obesity if we look at how birth rates have changed overtime in Europe the past few decades. As the graph shows, the European family is shrinking in size slowly but steadily since 1960. Although shrinking family size has been on a steady rise recently, a study shows that crude birth rate (number of live births per 1000 people) has been fairly increasing in the last one decade. Fertility was highest between the 60’s and the turn of the millennium. It then hit rock-bottom in 2002, where a total of 5 million live births were recorded (a staggering decrease of 2.5 million from the 1999 figure of 7.5 million). In 2008, a modest rebound was recorded with a high of 5.5 million births being recorded in the EU-28. But then again, the figure has been on a steady decline between 2009 and 2013.


The fertility rate—which is the average number of live children a woman would give birth to during her childbearing years—in the EU-28 stood at 1.62 in 2010 and decreased to 1.55 in 2013. On the whole, it’s quite an increase considering the 1.47 low of 2003.

The slight increase is really significant but still far from matching the replacement rate in industrialized countries which stands at 2.1 births per woman. The replacement level is the average total number of children per woman required to keep the population size constant in the absence of immigration and emigration.

In 2000, fertility rates in Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Italy, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic had gone below 1.30, which is described as “lowest-low fertility”. The figure has been changing positively since then, though, with a number of EU member states including Spain, Portugal and Poland reporting more than 1.36 each by 2013.

One positive thing that cannot be overlooked is that the birth rate disparity in Europe has decreased over time. That means, the difference in birth rates between the European countries is not as dramatic as it used to be. The difference in live births per woman between Ireland and Estonia (the highest and lowest respectively) stood at 1.8 live births per woman in 1960. In 1970, it deteriorated to 2.0. The disparity, by 1990, which was then between Cyprus and Italy had reduced to 1.1 births per woman. 2000 onwards, the figure has been around 0.7 to 0.8 live births per woman, with Ireland and France recording the highest fertility rates of close to 2.00 births per woman in 2013. On the flip side, Poland, Spain and Portugal recorded the lowest rates of 1.29, 1.27 and 1.21 live births per woman respectively.

Taking 1990 as the base year, the fertility rates in the United Kingdom and Denmark have remained the same as of 2013, while only Slovenia, Belgium, Italy, and Netherlands have recorded an increase. Slovakia, Poland, Malta and Cyprus, on the contrary, experienced the highest decrease of more than 30% between 1990 and 2013. Cyprus leads the pack with a decrease of 2.41 in 1990 to 1.30 in 2013.

It’s important that Europe’s social policy takes into account the declining birth rates and how they influence obesity rates and overall health. Let’s hope that policymakers will take action to  prevent this obesity epidemic.