An overweight preschooler is likely to become an obese as a teen or adult according to a new study. While tempting to call the chubbiness in toddlers “baby fat,” the reality is those extra inches are a precursor of a weight problem later on. The research conducted at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University shows that obesity by age five sets the pattern for a life of obesity in most children, but not all.
Published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Emory University study showed that half of those obese in their early teens were already overweight in preschool. The researchers examined data on 7,000 children who entered kindergarten in 1998. They found that obesity is established early in life. Yes, some obese or overweight kindergartners lost their excess weight, and other children got fat over time. But fat kindergarteners were four to five times more likely to be fat teens than those who were thin initially.
These new research findings add fuel to the discussions to address childhood obesity arising from a UCLA study published last January. The UCLA study showed that obese children are more likely to have medical, mental or developmental conditions. Some of these conditions may be genetic, as is a high body mass index (BMI). While the study did not determine if the obesity caused the other problems or vice versa, it does show that childhood obesity needs to be addressed to deal with the other conditions.
Does these studies doom overweight children to a lifetime of obesity and health problems? No; obesity by 5 years old probably sets a pattern for their life but research also shows that changes in diet and activity will make a difference.
More than 12 percent of U.S. children currently enter kindergarten obese, but researchers say early prevention efforts will mitigate the odds the children remain obese.
The UCLA researchers speculated that societal changes in the way children learn and play have had a negative influence. It is no secret that many children are not playing in the streets like their parents and spending considerable time in front of the television or computer games. Studies show that reducing television and computer use in fat children did have an impact.
Parents need to recognize their role in “shaping” their children. Parents of overweight children as usually overweight themselves. Parents need to recognize the example set by their own diets and sedentary habits. Doing a physical activity with a preschooler and establishing healthy food habits will benefit the whole house.
One good habit to instill in children is a quality breakfast. Studies show that skipping breakfast or grabbing something sweet regularly can lead to health problems later on.
Researchers do not suggest restricting access to sweets or junk food, which tends to make the children want the forbidden food more. Instead, offer small amounts and offer healthier choices. In fact, children need to learn self-regulation and how to be mindful about what they eat. Pre-plating their meals or proscribing items can be counter-productive.
Lastly, encourage overweight children to go to bed earlier. Studies show children who are sleep-deprived are more likely to be obese. One study showed that people who don’t get enough sleep crave more high-calorie foods.
The Emory Study is a wake up call to parents, doctors and educators that diet and exercise habits need to be addressed early on. Trying to reverse obesity by five will set a better pattern for a child’s life.
Opinion By Dyanne Weiss