Treating Obesity in Children: Does it Even Make Sense?

In a recent post, I asked whether or not the childhood obesity trend could be reversed. While there’s no simple answer to this question, a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that we’re moving in the right direction—at least among low-income preschoolers.

In the CDC study, researchers looked at the weights and heights of an estimated 11.6 million 2- to 4-year-old children from 43 states and territories in the U.S. between 2008-2011. Although 3 out of the 43 states and territories for which data was obtained saw an increased obesity rate, 19 saw a small but significant decline in obesity prevalence.

Despite this glimmer of hope in the war against obesity, an estimated 1 in 8 preschoolers is currently obese. And weighing more than they should—even when they’re toddlers—puts children at increased risk for a variety of diet-related diseases and conditions ranging from high blood pressure to type 2 diabetes to heart disease.

For many, it’s intuitive to try to help children—especially when they’re young and impressionable—to help them develop healthy food and eating habits and attitudes.But not everyone agrees that treating obesity during early childhood will have much of a beneficial health effect over the long-term.

To determine whether or not widespread, intensive efforts designed to treat obesity in young children is worth it from a financial perspective, a study from researchers at Stanford Business School looked at 40 years of health data and the results of childhood obesity treatment efforts. They conclude that head-on obesity treatment in children may have little impact on reducing obesity-related illness when those children become adults. The researchers argue that many obese children slim down without any special treatment, and that even if treated successfully when they’re young, many will become obese again by the time they’re 30- or 40-years-old.

The Stanford researchers do, however, suggest that focusing intensive treatment efforts on obese children who are 16 and older (rather than on younger children), providing better nutrition, better playgrounds, and better fitness centers in schools, and creating public efforts to reduce junk food intake among all children (not just obese ones) are more cost-effective—and effective—strategies to reduce obesity-related illness.

No matter what, guiding kids of all ages to move in a more healthful direction when it comes to food choices, and eating and physical activity habits, will not only help them grow and develop into more healthful body weights, but feel better—both physically and emotionally. And as awareness of the need to help raise a healthier generation grows, so to do federal initiatives aimed at reversing the obesity trend and educating children about nutritious food and fitness habits. One such program, launched by First Lady Michelle Obama, is Let’s Move. The CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity (DNPAO) funds programs in 25 states to address obesity and other chronic diseases. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also recently announced it awarded $5 million in total in grants to 4 universities to develop childhood obesity intervention programs. The not-for-profit Turn the Tide Foundation empowers individuals and families to achieve sustainable weight control and robust good health through a variety of programs. And I am honored to serve on the Advisory Board of Live Light Live Right, an obesity prevention program in Brooklyn, New York that serves low-income children.

In a follow up to their 2012 report that identified key goal areas and strategies for obesity prevention, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released the new report, Evaluating Obesity Prevention Efforts: A Plan for Measuring Progress. In it, the IOM lays out a framework to guide and evaluate obesity prevention efforts and improve their overall impact. Having programs to temper the obesity problem and making such programs accountable is certainly a win-win strategy when it comes to raising healthier kids.

There’s no one solution or answer to the childhood obesity epidemic. That’s why we all need to band together to help kids of all ages grow into more healthful body weights. We need to work together to create home, community, and school environments that provide nutritious foods that are available in smaller (or at least more appropriate) portions. We need to make neighborhoods safe for kids—and families—to get the daily physical activity and exercise they need. And we need to empower kids by teaching them where food comes from, how to read food labels, how to cook, how to be mindful when they eat, and how to enjoy nutritious food more often and more than nutrient-poor foods and beverages. We need more nutritious foods to be marketed and sold to kids, and we need to reduce the widespread marketing and advertisement of high-calorie, nutrient-poor, foods and beverages on television and elsewhere. We need to all work together to instill healthful habits in kids and to model the habits we want to see them emulate. Most importantly, we need to impress upon kids how making better food and lifestyle choices will help them not only look and feel better, but prime them to be more likely to achieve their goals, whether in the classroom or on the playing field. We need to teach them what’s in it for them, and do so with love and support and without judgment.

Image of the little girl eating on the table via Shutterstock.

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Tags: , , | Categories: Health, Must Read, Obesity

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