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Inevitable Obesity?

Posted 3/29/2018 by UHBlog

Young children and teens often become overweight or obese because they have poor eating habits and aren’t active enough. If you're worried about your child’s weight, talk to us.

Mother hugging daughter

Watching your child struggle with their weight can be difficult. But a recent study shows that there are two critical windows in a child's life when intervening can prevent adult obesity: during early childhood and in their early teenage years. The study, published in the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) journal, Pediatrics, followed 2,700 people in Finland over three decades to identify key ages when achieving a healthy body mass index (BMI) might prevent obesity during middle age.

“It’s a great study that allows us pediatricians to try and identify those children who are at risk for becoming obese – perhaps even prior to them developing obesity – so that we can minimize their weight problems as adults – and allow these young individuals to go on and live healthy lives,” says pediatric endocrinologist Ryan Farrell, MD.

According to the study, age was an important factor in predicting adult obesity. Looking backwards, it found that the majority of people who became obese as adults had registered higher BMIs at age 6 than their peers had. BMI measures a person's body fat, and is based on your weight in relation to your height.

This statistic, says Dr. Farrell, magnifies the importance of implementing healthy eating habits in the toddler and early childhood years.

“It’s much easier to treat obesity early on in the process,” he says.

Parents can help their young child by limiting drinks and foods that promote weight gain, including:

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Chocolate milk
  • Highly processed foods, like candy, cookies and white bread

“At this age, you can also increase the repertoire of foods they eat by introducing them to different foods earlier on,” Dr. Farrell says. “Try to expose them to as many fruits and vegetables as possible.”

Multiple studies have shown that the first four to six years of life are a critical time to establish healthy habits. And having consistent, healthy childhood BMI growth is also linked to lower adult obesity rates, Dr. Farrell says.

The AAP study also found that the early teenage years are a critical period to control obesity.

“There is a window around the post-pubertal time frame of 14 to 16 years of age where those individuals that don't develop obesity start to have a plateau in their body mass index development, while those individuals that become obese as adults tend to have persistent rises and a steeper climb in their body mass index trajectory,” Dr. Farrell says.

This reinforces the need for regular, consistent check-ups with your child’s pediatrician, Dr. Farrell says.

“That way, individuals that start to have an early increase in their body mass index can be identified and potentially even have interventions to prevent the progression to obesity,” he says.It's never too early – or late – to start practicing healthy habits. Dr. Farrell suggests these steps to help curb obesity in your child or teenager:

  • Have regular family meals. “There's clear evidence that children who eat meals with their family tend to have lower rates of obesity,” Dr. Farrell says.
  • Be active together. Your child is much more likely to adopt an active lifestyle if you participate with them. And that doesn't mean you have to run a 5k to get the benefits. Just raking leaves or kicking a ball in the backyard counts.
    “Young children typically want to be physically active,” says Dr. Farrell. “They love to be on the move. They love to be outside.”
    And families that work out together strengthen their bonds, as well as their muscles.
  • Keep the refrigerator stocked with healthy food. “A high-fiber diet rich in fruits and vegetables is linked to lower incidence of obesity,” Dr. Farrell says.
  • Be supportive. “The individuals that tend to be most successful in fighting obesity have the support of their families as they are going through the process,” he says.

If you have any concerns about your child developing a weight problem, it’s important to talk to your child’s pediatrician, Dr. Farrell says.

“They can reflect upon your child’s growth curve to determine whether your child is either obese or overweight already, or if they are at risk of future development of obesity and overweightness,” he says. “Having the capacity to make potential interventions before weight becomes a problem is critical.”

Ryan Farrell, MD is a pediatric endocrinologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. You can request an appointment with Dr. Farrell or any other doctor online.

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