High-Protein Baby Formula May be Linked to Childhood Obesity

Does baby formula baby lead to childhood obesity? One new study says so.

Australian researchers have found a possible link between high protein intakes, bottle-fed children and obesity. And, they’re not the only ones who have found this connection.

In nature, milks chemical structure changes. Breastmilk doesn’t have a definite ‘set’ nutrition list. It’s protein content isn’t constant, and falls in the weeks after birth. Compare that to formula. Formula does have a stable protein content – and research is suggesting that might just be too much.

Of course plenty of people formula feed. It’s the best choice for them and their baby. The research doesn’t argue with this at all. But it does suggest there might need to be changes in the nutritional breakdown of baby formula.

How are current formula ingredients determined? 

The current protein requirement levels in formula set by Food Standards Australia New Zealand are higher than those in some other areas. The European Union and the US currently have lower upper limits of protein allowed in infant formulas. Why? Too much protein at a young age may lead to obese or overweight babies. This is why research on the subject is so important. And why Australia is currently looking in to changing the guidelines.

What is the role of protein? 

We all know that carbs and fat factor into obesity. But, what does protein have to do with it? It seems as though study after study is finding links to high protein infant formulas and overweight children. A 2014 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that infants who were given lower protein formulas had a reduced BMI and lower obesity risk when they got to primary school when compared to infants given high-protein formulas.

What does other research show? 

Researchers from the Erasmus University Medical Centre, Rotterdam, the Netherlands also found similar results. When researchers calculated the total protein intakes of 3,564 Dutch children they found that a higher number (total protein) was linked to being heavier, taller and having a greater BMI at 10-years.

The recent findings on excess protein intake early on and the connection to obesity has far-reaching implications. One in four Australian children are either overweight or obese, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Being overweight or obese puts children at risk for developing a host of health problems now and later on. A high BMI is the second highest contributor to burden of disease. This is one place above smoking.

Not only are high-protein infant formulas contributing to weight gain. Switching children to solids too early may have a similar effect. Some mums feel a sense of confusion when it comes to starting solids. Yes, babies can start solids before they reach a year. But, that doesn’t mean taking away the breastmilk and going with the same foods that the rest of the family is eating before 6-months.

Data from the Melbourne Infant Feeding Activity and Nutrition Trial (InFANT) showed that children at 9 and 18 months and 3.5 and 5 years had higher protein intakes that recommended for their age groups. The data also shows that stopping breastfeeding earlier on, along with an early introduction of solid foods and high dairy milk consumption, predicted higher protein intakes.

Even though the protein limit in formula is still higher than what most infants need, you can still take steps to keep your little one growing on target. Infants up to 6-months need 10 g of protein a day. Between 7 and 12-months the daily intake need goes up to 14 g.

What does this mean for mums?

If you’re starting to introduce solids, take a look at your baby’s total protein intake per day. If you’re breastfeeding, you don’t need to stop at 6-months just to reduce the protein your baby is receiving. Talk to your baby’s doctor about how to balance breastmilk and solids. If you’re formula-feeding, you may need to reduce the amount of formula you offer as your baby eats more and more solids. Again, talk to your family doctor before making any major changes to your baby’s diet.

Avatar of Erica Loop

Erica Loop is a mum, parenting writer and educator with an MS in child development. Along with writing for websites such as PBS Parents,, Scary Mommy,, Modern Mom, and others, she also is the creator of a kids' activities and art blog.

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