Experts Finding Effective Ways to Address Childhood Obesity
Nov. 12, 1999 (Chicago) -- The bad news
about childhood obesity is that more children in the United States are
overweight than even 10 years ago. The good news is that health care
professionals in several specialties are finding some of the causes and
effective ways to treat it, according to a panel of speakers here at the 127th
Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association.
These efforts typically involve schools and
families. Not surprisingly, many of the strategies involve watching less
television. Watching television and obesity are intrinsically linked, says
William L. Dietz, MD, PhD. He encourages parents and physicians to address
obesity actively, because the rate childhood obesity has doubled to 15% since
1986. Obese children can have the same problems as adults, such as elevated
cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as type 2 diabetes, formerly called
Dietz, the director of the division of
nutrition and physical activity at the CDC in Atlanta, says that communities
can inadvertently promote obesity by not providing sidewalks and bike paths. To
illustrate his point, he showed a slide of a man 'walking' his dog by driving
his car alongside his dog, with the leash sticking out the window.
Eating patterns can sometimes play a
surprising role in the development of obesity. When parents limit sweets and
high-fat food items, rather than teach children to eat them in moderation, the
forbidden foods become even more attractive, says Leann L. Birch, professor and
head of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University.
In closed-camera observations of children presented snack foods, children
tended to eat larger quantities of the higher-calorie foods if their parents
had restricted these items in the home. Girls whose mothers dieted also ate
larger quantities of these foods, she says.
Steven L. Gortmaker, PhD, an epidemiologist
with the Harvard School of Public Health, encourages parents to actively limit
their children's television viewing. Parents should not provide a television
for a child's bedroom, and they should limit the hours their children are
allowed to watch television. Simply eating meals together can reduce television
watching by 30 minutes per week.
Several school programs integrate classroom
lessons, school food services, physical education departments, and families,
says Thomas N. Robinson, MD. One ongoing study targets third and fifth graders.
"With pre-adolescents, we have an opportunity to prevent adolescent
obesity," says Robinson, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford
University. "Also, at this age, children's diet and activity are still
controlled by parents."
In earlier research, he and colleagues
found that strategies to reduce television and video game viewing were more
successful at encouraging physical activity. Strategies that stressed activity
directly made children feel that physical activity was being forced on them,
and they were unenthusiastic.
"Physicians and nutritionists are
working together to develop effective ways to reduce childhood obesity,"
Geraldine Perry, DrPH, RD, tells WebMD. "Because television is one of the
risk factors that several researchers have identified, much research is focused
on strategies for reducing television viewing." Perry is an epidemiologist
with the CDC's maternal and child health division.