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Children's weight woes may start in womb

Brittany Johnson's appointment calendar is cluttered with doctors. There's her diabetes doctor; her primary care physician; her sleep apnea expert; her podiatrist; her ear, nose and throat specialist; her psychiatrist and her bariatric surgeon.

Brittany is 16. All of her medical problems can be traced to one source: She weighs more than 300 pounds.

The Charlotte teen is among the rising ranks of obese children who are developing diseases once associated with aging adults: diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, fatty liver disease, osteoporosis, depression. The crisis is so severe that experts say this generation may be the first in 200 years to have a shorter life expectancy than its parents.

New research shows that the path toward obesity actually might start in the womb. Mounting evidence suggests that what a mother eats, what toxins she's exposed to and how active she is during pregnancy have profound effects on her offspring's weight and wellness later in life.

"People don't realize how early this starts," said Dr. Sarah Armstrong, a pediatrician and the director of Duke Children's Healthy Lifestyle Program, a clinical treatment program for obese kids.

As researchers begin unlocking keys to childhood obesity, some doctors are embracing radical treatments to help young patients.

Brittany is pinning her hopes on weight-loss surgery once reserved for adults. Next month, she will undergo gastric banding, a procedure in which a surgeon will wrap an adjustable silicone ring around the upper part of her stomach, restricting how much food she is able to eat.

The procedure has not been approved for children under 18. But at least three insurance companies, including Brittany's, are funding a clinical trial, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as a way to try to stem the costs of treating obesity, estimated at $147 billion a year. Nationwide, more than 12 million children are obese, including 13.4 percent of 14-to-17-year-olds in North Carolina.

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