Experimental Charts May Predict Children's Risk of Obesity in Adulthood

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 6, 2000 (Los Angeles) -- What are a child's chances of being an overweight adult? Researchers in Hong Kong have developed a set of tables and charts to answer that question, but U.S. experts consulted by WebMD maintain that the value of the information is dubious.

In their paper, published in the current issue of Pediatric Research, researchers Qing He and Johan Karlberg of the University of Hong Kong studied more than 3,600 Swedish children by using approximately 14 height and weight measurements over the first 18 years of the children's lives. The investigators then used this information, factoring in the age of each child, to generate charts showing the probability that the child would be overweight by age 18. To do this they calculated each child's body mass index (BMI), which is based on the appropriate weight for a person's height, at any given age.

The researchers make an "interesting observation that puts numbers on what we've observed in the past: that the more severe the problem [of obesity] at any age, the more likely it is to persist," says William Dietz, MD, PhD, director of the CDC's division of nutrition and physical activity and an authority on childhood obesity. "But I don't think it will change the way we treat overweight children."

The notion that the heavier a child is early on, the more likely he or she is to be overweight later in life is "common sense," adds Joyce Barnett, RD, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. She tells WebMD that if the tables are used inappropriately, "I would be concerned that someone would get labeled as being at risk [of becoming obese] and might develop an eating disorder." Neither Dietz nor Barnett was involved in the study.

Both experts point out that even for the heaviest children, the risk of becoming an overweight adult was 60%, so, as Barnett says, 40% of those children will not become overweight. "It is not clear that these tables predict obesity better than family history, socioeconomic status, or a constellation of other factors," Dietz tells WebMD.

Barnett concurs, saying, "I would think that to evaluate a child over time, in the context of their family eating and exercise habits, instead of just predicting their statistical chances of becoming obese, would be more meaningful and valuable." Maintaining a healthy weight should be a family affair, she warns, saying, "To target a child, you must target the whole family -- exercise is especially important to help a young child achieve and maintain a healthy weight."

Vital Information:

  • A group of researchers has developed a set of tables and charts that can predict obesity in adulthood, based on a child's age and BMI.
  • The more severe obesity is at any age, the more likely it will persist, but 40% of the heaviest children will not grow up to be obese adults.
  • These predictive charts will probably not change the way obesity is currently treated in children.