As if 'lactivists' (lactation activists) didn't have enough fodder for their culture war on working women, a recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition provided yet another reason for them to pile the guilt onto parents who feed their babies formula.
It claims that exclusive breastfeeding is linked to longer telomeres and the authors are at one of the top medical institutions in the country, the U.C. San Francisco School of Medicine. One of its six authors is a Nobel Laureate - Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn who won the Prize for the discovery of telomeres.
First, what are telomeres and why are long ones better?
Our DNA is packed into structures called chromosomes - long rod-like structures with both ends capped by structures called telomeres. Telomeres, often compared to the plastic tips of shoelaces, play a crucial part in cells, such as keeping our DNA protected, organized and copied properly during cell division. Without telomeres, the main part of the chromosome that harbors the genes essential for life would get shorter each time a cell divides. Shorter chromosomes result in cells that cannot replicate anymore, leading to cell death, so longer telomeres have been linked to longevity.
The group drew their conclusion after they measured the length of telomeres of 203 Latino children between four and five years of age that were either exclusively breastfed or not at four-six weeks of age. The second group was not exclusively formula fed either but, may have drank sweetened beverages, flavored milks and water.
Obviously, these two groups are a poor comparison and taking breastfeeding at an arbitrary time point (4-6 weeks) and comparing it to a random characteristic found at another arbitrary time point (4-5 years) is not only unscientific, it's absurd. If you look for something that is more prevalent in a group, you will find it. Had they tried, the authors could have found that children that were exclusively breastfed perhaps had longer eyelashes, pinky fingers or tongues. It's a simple correlation and there is nothing in this study that suggests that breastfeeding caused telomere lengthening. Also a concern is that the authors did not measure the children's telomeres at birth, making it impossible to make a comparison later. All of the children with longer telomeres at 4-5 years old could have had longer telomeres at birth.
Despite lacking meaningful data, the study was highlighted in The New York Times and others. The coverage in the Times was particularly enthusiastic, suggesting that mothers who exclusively breastfeed maintain a healthier diet and have more bonding with kids. Translation - parents who use formula cannot put together a healthy meal and that gently cradling your baby while rocking and singing a lullaby is not bonding if you are also holding a bottle of formula. Both of these claims are not just unsubstantiated - they are also damaging to working moms or those who can't breastfeed. They quote breastfeeding expert Dr. Alison M. Stuebe, “The more we learn about breast milk, the more it’s clear it is pretty awesome and does a lot of cool stuff.”
Well, it may do a lot of 'cool stuff,' but there's no evidence it is lengthening telomeres or helping anyone live longer. So, why don't we stop massaging data to create links between breastfeeding and "X" that aren't scientifically sound. There are already enough reasons media and activist groups make parents feel guilty.
I have three children - they were all fed both breast milk and formula - and, I think that their telomeres are the perfect length.
This article first appeared in Priorities magazine, which is sent free of charge to all American Council on Science and Health donors.