For decades, traditional nutrition science has espoused the idea that weight gain and obesity are simply caused by an energy imbalance – too many “calories in,” or overeating, and not enough “calories out,” or physical activity.

In recent years, however, researchers have begun to dig deeper into the complex interactions between physiological and environmental factors that contribute to America’s obesity epidemic – not only among adults, but also in the youngest of our children.

One such factor came to light earlier this week, when a study of more than 60,000 babies and children published in JAMA Pediatrics revealed an association between antibiotic use in early childhood and obesity later on down the line.

The study found that babies who received broad-spectrum antibiotics and those who took four or more rounds of antibiotics before the age of two were more likely to be obese by age five than children who did not take any antibiotics. The results held up even after researchers adjusted for possible confounding variables like ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

These findings are alarming given that many well-intentioned parents and doctors frequently turn to antibiotics as a cure-all when children experience common health problems, from ear infections to the flu. Even when it’s unknown whether the issue is caused by bacteria or a virus, doctors are quick to appease parents and offer a “solution” in the form of a Z-pak.

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Antibiotics Kill Off Beneficial Bacteria

Unfortunately, what many parents don’t know is that broad-spectrum antibiotics don’t discriminate between beneficial and harmful bacteria in the body. So, as they dutifully dole out the treatment prescribed by the pediatrician, the drug is actually wiping out a whole host of “good” bacteria in the child’s gut that help maintain a healthy weight and metabolism in the long-term.

According to the authors of the study, “Because the first 24 months of life comprise major shifts in diet, growth, and the establishment of intestinal microbiome, this interval may comprise a window of particular susceptibility to antibiotic effects.”

When you consider the fact that a third of children who are overweight in kindergarten will be obese by eighth grade, it is evident that doctors and parents would be wise to avoid giving children any unnecessary antibiotics that could damage their developing microbiomes so early in life.

It’s a well-established fact that our overuse of antibiotics is a threat to public health, as it drives the evolution and proliferation of resistant bacteria and weakens the effectiveness of antibiotics and our own immune systems. Now there is evidence that the indiscriminate use of these drugs may harm public health in another way – by wreaking havoc on our children’s gut flora and setting them up for obesity later in life.

Annika Ihnat is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and communications consultant with a passion for public health, education, social justice, and sustainable food. When she’s not writing, editing, or consulting, you can find her practicing yoga, delighting in nature, and cooking up seasonal farmers market finds for family and friends.

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