Early Childhood Malnutrition and Adult Obesity: Evidence From the 1959-1961 China Famine

Last updated September 2009

Developing countries today face the paradoxical dual burden of malnutrition and obesity. It has been hypothesized that early childhood malnutrition leads to a higher risk of adult obesity, although evidence is mixed. I study the health outcomes and health behaviors of 30- to 45-year-olds born during the 1959-1961 China Famine. I find that women who were exposed to famine as infants have a higher body mass index (BMI of 0.84 kg/m2) and are more likely to be obese (by 5 percentage points) than women who were not exposed to famine. The effect of famine exposure increases along the BMI distribution. I do not find significant effects on obesity for men. I also find no evidence that the increase in BMI is differentially greater for the famine cohorts who are exposed to a food-rich environment in later life than for the famine cohorts who are not. Using detailed individual-level data on food intake and physical activities, I show that the increase in BMI for famine-exposed women is not due to higher fat intake nor to more sedentary lifestyles. A biological rather than a behavioral mechanism appears to underlie the association between early childhood malnutrition and adult obesity.
Contact Information:
Winnie Fung, fung@fas.harvard.edu, Harvard University