Forget Fast Food and Xbox: Common Cold May Cause Obesity in Kids

Filed under: In The News, Research Reveals: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Research Reveals: Big Kids, Research Reveals: Tweens, Research Reveals: Teens

common cold obesity

Do sniffles translate into pounds? Credit: Getty Images

Quarter Pounders, super-sized soft drinks and too many hours in front of the Xbox used to be blamed for the epidemic of childhood obesity.

But the latest research points to a new culprit: the common cold. Childhood obesity may be an infectious disease transmitted by a common cold virus, according to a new study reported on MSNBC.com.

This may give rise to parental pondering -- or at least food for thought: Doesn't fast food and a lack of exercise make kids fat? And doesn't a lack of proper nutrition and slacking on healthy fitness habits increase the risk of getting sick? Now, do kids who eat poorly and sprawl out on the couch playing video games face a double whammy?

University of California, San Diego researchers found that children exposed to a particular strain of adenovirus (a virus that causes respiratory infections or gastrointestinal tract infections), were significantly more likely to be obese, and, in most cases, 50 pounds heavier than their peers, according to a report published today in the online version of Pediatrics, MSNBC says.

"This shows that body weight regulation and the development of obesity are very complicated issues," the study's senior author, Dr. Jeffrey Schwimmer, an associate professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego and director of Weight and Wellness at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, tells MSNBC. "It's not simply a case that some children eat too much and others don't. There are children who eat all the wrong things in all the wrong quantities who are not obese."

Other experts agree that the findings are significant, but caution that the new research doesn't prove that the virus causes weight gain. They say it's entirely possible that obese kids are just more likely to get the virus.

"That's enormous," Richard Atkinson, an endocrinologist at Virginia Commonwealth University and founder of Obetech, a company that tests for antibodies against adenovirus-36, tells MSNBC. He also holds a patent on a vaccine against the virus.

But Schwimmer says he isn't blaming all childhood obesity on the virus.

"Some kids just eat too much and exercise too little," he says says in a release. "But, I've seen children who had very brisk weight gain in a given year for reasons that were very hard to pinpoint. These may be the children who have obesity related to this infection."

Schwimmer and his colleagues examined 124 children, ages 8 to 18, for the presence of antibodies specific to adenovirus 36 (AD36), one of more than 50 strains of adenovirus known to infect humans and cause a variety of respiratory, gastrointestinal and other infections. AD36 is the only human adenovirus currently linked to human obesity.

Slightly more than half of the children in the study (67) were considered obese, based on a Body Mass Index, or BMI, in the 95th percentile or greater. The researchers detected neutralizing antibodies specific to AD36 in 19 of the children (15 percent). The majority of these AD36-positive children (78 percent) were obese, with AD36 antibodies much more frequent in obese children (15 of 67) than in non-obese children (4 of 57).

Schwimmer says he hopes this research will help shift some of the burden that falls so heavily upon obese people, particularly in children.

"Many people believe that obesity is one's own fault or the fault of one's parents or family," he says in the release. "This work helps point out that body weight is more complicated than it's made out to be. And it is time that we move away from assigning blame in favor of developing a level of understanding that will better support efforts at both prevention and treatment. These data add credence to the concept that an infection can be a cause or contributor to obesity."

Related: Lack of Sleep in Babies a Cause of Childhood Obesity, Study Finds

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.