Gender-Specific Effects of Early Nutritional Restriction on Adult Obesity Risk

Evidence from Quasi-Experimental Studies

Gender-specifc effects of early life nutritional deprivation and its interactions with later environmental exposures may provide insight into global gender differences in obesity prevalence.

In the United States, Black and Hispanic women have greater obesity prevalence than their male counterparts (50% Black women versus 37% men; 43% Hispanic women versus 34% men). Globally, the gender gap is even wider. The cause may be due to perinatal nutritional restriction, followed by abundance of calories, sugars, and fats later in life.

This author reviews four historic, quasi-experimental studies:

  1. In a Dutch famine study during and after World War II, children in different stages of gestation were exposed to food ration cuts, which ceased abruptly with liberation in 1945. Females in gestation had higher body mass indexes (BMIs) as adults while males did not.
  2. In a study during a civil war in Nigeria (1967–70), adult women who had been exposed to famine in fetal life were more likely to be overweight, while no effects were seen in men.
  3. During the Great Famine in China (1959–61), females born during that time had higher BMIs as adults than did men or those not subject to the famine.
  4. A study of people born after in utero exposure to extreme starvation during the German blockage of Leningrad (1941–44) found no sex differences in overweight.

"The female offspring of poor, or otherwise nutritionally restricted, women in rapidly developing and wealthy countries may be at particularly high risk of obesity due to environmental mismatches between early and later life," this author writes. This "may provide insight into global gender differences in obesity prevalence."