updated 5/28/2004 2:11:24 PM ET 2004-05-28T18:11:24

Women who gain more than 35 pounds during pregnancy could be more likely to be overweight 15 years later than those who gain less, new research suggests.

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A study of 2,342 Swedish women, presented Friday at a European obesity conference, found that mothers who gained less during pregnancy were more successful at losing weight afterward and keeping it off.

In the West, the healthy amount of weight gain during pregnancy is 26 pounds for the average woman. However, the variation in weight gain among expectant mothers is huge. While some gain almost no weight at all, others put on more than 65 pounds.

The study conducted by Dr. Yvonne Linne at Huddinge University in Stockholm, Sweden, is the first to come up with a threshold at which women are likely to have trouble losing their pregnancy weight and keeping it off.

“What it means is that the gynecologist, the obstetricians now have to have a complete new rethink of whether they should — as currently — effectively not bother about women’s weight gain during pregnancy,” said Dr. Philip James, president of the International Obesity Task Force, a coalition of scientists and research groups.

“In the old days, they monitored it obsessively because they worried about poor weight gain,” said James, who was not connected with the research. “They’ve now got completely relaxed and now it’s not really of material importance to them because they always get good babies at the end.

“If you just allow these women to rip, even if they get a handle on themselves after pregnancy, not only have you increased the risk of these women becoming obese and diabetic, but you have produced a megababy and that baby is at risk for the rest of its life,” he said.

Sex of baby no influence on weight gain
The study followed 563 of the women for 15 years after their pregnancies. It found that the sex of the baby did not influence whether a mother was more likely to lose her weight and keep it off.

Calculate your due dateThe number of pregnancies over the 15 years did not matter, though most women gain the most during their first pregnancy.

About 30 percent of the women gained more than 35 pounds.

Before pregnancy, 7 percent were overweight. A year later, 12 percent were overweight; 15 years after the birth, 31 percent of the women were too fat.

The scientists found that for a weight gain of up to 35 pounds, women tended to be more successful at returning to within 4½ pounds of their pre-pregnancy weight. Any higher and they were twice as likely to stay fat after the birth.

“It’s not 100 percent accurate, but it’s better than guessing,” Linne said.

One explanation for the finding is that women who gain more weight in pregnancy are less concerned about their weight anyway and so are less likely to work to get back to their original size.

However, James said the most likely explanation is that pregnancy unmasked a hidden vulnerability to weight gain.

“You’ve now identified a susceptible woman. In fact, pregnancy was a wonderful way of testing the system to see whether they had this sensitivity to become fat,” he said. “As they go into the menopause, they are the ones who are most likely to end up obese.”

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