The Barker Hypothesis


By John DiTraglia



I knew about how babies born at low birth weight and babies exposed while still in their mothers womb to the Dutch war famine of the winter of 1944-45, were prone to be obese as adults. We have written about these observations awhile ago. But I just heard about another thing called the Barker Hypothesis.

Barker reported a study that was published in 1989 that traced the story of 5654 men who were born between 1911 and 1930 in England.(1) He found that the men with the lowest weights at birth and at one year had the highest death rates from heart disease. This observation has been corroborated multiple times among different populations since that first report of this phenomenon. Incidentally, 92.4% of the men were breast fed back in those days in England.

But the recommendation proposed by Dr. Barker in 1989 and attempted to be practiced by pediatricians ever since, that we should try to fatten up low birth weight babies to try and prevent this, may not in fact be the best idea.(2)

It is possible to make small babies grow faster by feeding them high calorie high protein formulas. Though it has been found that babies fed high test formulas don’t eat more calories than babies fed regular formulas or breast milk. They adjust down the quantities of high calorie formulas they will swallow even while they get bigger faster. So it’s not the total calories that’s the magic. It’s something else.

But the take home message is still that we may be able to influence obesity etc. by things we could manipulate in pregnancy or maybe even during your grandmother’s pregnancy, or in infancy and early childhood. This is called epigenetics. It’s genetic but epigenes are caused by environmental influences on genes without changing the underlying DNA structure. That’s how genetics can control destiny quickly. It takes many generations to evolve DNA. The genes and the environment both cause obesity. Just not the way we this argument has been raging. Pundits have been answering the genes versus environment conundrum by saying, “well, you need the right genes and then also an environment of eating too much.” But that wasn’t very satisfactory. This explanation is better. We haven’t quite got this figured out yet but we’re closer maybe.

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By John DiTraglia

1. Barker DJ et al. Weight in infancy and death from ischaemic heart disease. Lancet. 1989 Sep 9;2(8663):577-80. PMCID: PMC2744561 PMID: 19768178

2. Dover GJ. The Barker Hypothesis: How Pediatricans Will Diagnose and Prevent Common Adult-Onset Diseases. Trans Am Clin Climatol Assoc. 2009; 120: 199–207.

1. Barker DJ et al. Weight in infancy and death from ischaemic heart disease. Lancet. 1989 Sep 9;2(8663):577-80. PMCID: PMC2744561 PMID: 19768178

2. Dover GJ. The Barker Hypothesis: How Pediatricans Will Diagnose and Prevent Common Adult-Onset Diseases. Trans Am Clin Climatol Assoc. 2009; 120: 199–207.