Two studies on obesity, both published in January of 2014 within one week of each other, provide complementary insights on the issue. The first study, which followed 8,000 children and was published by the New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that our weight may be set as early as age five. One of its findings stated that almost half of the adolescents obese by the eighth grade were also overweight when they started kindergarten. (The terms obese and overweight are determined by locating the locus of one’s height and weight on a Body Mass Index [B.M.I.] chart. The Center for Disease Control states that one’s B.M.I. number is reliable indicator for “body fatness” for most people.) The New England Journal of Medicine study, called “Origins of Obesity in Childhood” also found that a larger birth weight, approximately nine pounds or more, was a significant indicator for later obesity. About 36 percent of kids with a larger birth weight became obese during grade school.
Interpreting their findings, the authors of this study conclude that obesity results from a combination of factors that include a genetic predisposition toward being heavy coupled with an environment that encourages overeating. Experts commenting on the study acknowledged that genetic influences tend to show up early in life and that researchers have been aware for 50 years that B.M.I. is highly heritable, though other traits such as height are more heritable.
The findings of the study provide one potential explanation for the often disappointing results of trying to help children lose weight. The study’s findings indicate these efforts come too late and that obesity needs to be combated at a much earlier age, during the pre-school years, and should limit its focus to children who are already overweight.
There may be a window of opportunity to prevent obesity, the researchers say, but the window opens and shuts a lot earlier than was previously thought. The bright side of the study’s findings it that, as Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan, Vice President at Emory Global Health Institute said, if a child can make it to kindergarten at a normal weight, the chances of him or her staying there are immensely better. Another optimistic view of the findings was offered by Steven L. Gortmaker, professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, who said that it is much easier for young children to cross into the normal weight category by losing a few pounds while adults may have to lose anywhere from 20-50 pounds.
The second study explores the psychological effects of health and diet messaging. The authors the apply their findings to the American Medical Association’s (AMA) recent classification of obesity as a disease. The AMA reversed their position in June of 2013 on obesity, reclassifying it from a condition to a disease. The study, published online on January 24th in the journal Psychological Science, included more than 700 people. In an online survey, participants read an article concerning weight and health and then answered a number of questions. The article fell into one of three categories: a standard public health message about weight, an article describing obesity as a disease, or an article stating that obesity was not a disease.
The study found that the participants who were obese placed less importance on eating a healthy diet and demonstrated less concern about their weight if they had read the article stating that obesity was a disease. The participants also showed higher levels of body satisfaction which correlates, according to the study’s authors, with choosing higher-calorie foods.
This study’s findings suggest that there may be negative effects associated with calling obesity a disease. The researchers wanted to explore if there were potential psychological repercussions of the AMA re-classification that could possibly lead obese people to think efforts to control or change their weight seem useless. Researchers duly noted that reducing the stigma of obesity and fostering greater body acceptance were also potential benefits of classifying obesity as a disease.
These two studies, psychological and medical, can be looked at together in order to expedite efforts to combat obesity.
By Donna Westlund