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updated 2/11/2010 3:08:28 PM ET 2010-02-11T20:08:28

You have to admit, chubby babies are oh-so-cute. But many plump infants grow up to be obese teens, which puts them at higher risk for all kinds of health issues, including type-2 diabetes, and high cholesterol and blood pressure, a new study suggests.

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The study researchers say their findings suggest the "tipping point" in obesity often occurs before a child reaches age 2 and sometimes as early as three months. The results come amid increased recognition that childhood obesity is increasing at an alarming rate. First lady Michelle Obama just kicked off a national campaign to fight the problem.

In fact, about 37 percent of American children are overweight, and about 16 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I really think this should be a wake-up call for doctors," said lead researcher Dr. John Harrington, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters and an assistant professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School. "Too often, doctors wait until medical complications arise before they begin treatment. What this study suggests is that prevention of obesity should begin far, far earlier."

Harrington and colleagues examined medical records from 111 children who were considered overweight, as their body mass index (BMI) was above that of 85 percent of the general population (of their age and gender). BMI is calculated with a person's height and weight and is considered an indicator of body fatness. A child or teen whose BMI is at or above the 95th percentile is considered obese.

They found that participants had started gaining weight in infancy at an average rate of .08 excess BMI units per month, or just under 1 BMI point per year. On average, this progression toward obesity began when the children were three months old. And more than 50 percent of the children became overweight at or before they turned 2, while 90 percent did before reaching age 5.

The take-home message:

"Getting parents and children to change habits that have already taken hold is a monumental challenge fraught with roadblocks and disappointments," Harrington said. "This study indicates that we may need to discuss inappropriate weight gain early in infancy to affect meaningful changes in the current trend of obesity."

The research is detailed this month in the journal Clinical Pediatrics.

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