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researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found warning signs for future heart disease in children as young as three.
Obese children have higher levels of C-reactive protein -- a sign of inflammation and heart disease risk, according to the study published online on Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
Obese kids at ages six and nine also have higher levels of two other signs of inflammation.
"We're seeing a relationship between weight status and elevated inflammatory markers much earlier than we expected," said study author Asheley Cockrell Skinner, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the school.
"Most adults understand that being overweight or obese isn't good for them. But not as many people realize that it may be unhealthy for young children to be overweight," said Skinner.
The researchers came to their conclusions after analyzing data collected between 1999 and 2006 in a national survey. More than 16, 000 children aged one to 17 took part in the study.
Nearly 15 percent of the children were defined as overweight, 11 percent were obese and 3.5 percent were considered very obese.
"A lot more work needs to be done before we figure out the full implication of these findings," said study co-author Dr. Eliana Perrin.
"But this study tells us that very young, obese children already have more inflammation than children who are not obese, and that's very concerning. It may help motivate us as physicians and parents to take obesity at younger ages more seriously," said Perrin.