Childhood Obesity Reaching Crisis Says LSU AgCenter Nutritionist

Heli J. Roy  |  8/21/2006 8:21:05 PM

News You Can Use For December 2003

Childhood obesity has substantially increased across all racial and ethnic backgrounds since the 1970s. "It is a serious condition that can lead to hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes mellitus and to an increased incidence of musculoskeletal injuries," warns LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Heli Roy.

Childhood obesity is one of the most critical challenges facing us today, according to Dr. Melinda Sothern, director of Prevention of Childhood Obesity laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, and Dr. Stewart Gordon, adjunct professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

Roy says higher body fat, even in children, can result in hyperlipidemia and abnormal lipid profiles, increasing the risk for diabetes, abnormal hormonal levels and an increase in coronary artery disease. One of the most serious consequences of childhood obesity is psychosocial, such as low self-esteem and increased depression.

The LSU AgCenter nutritionist says children are most likely to be obese if both parents are obese (about 80 percent chance), but the risk is cut in half if only one parent is obese. If both parents are lean, about only 7 percent of children will become obese.

Dietary intake and physical activity together with cultural, social and economic background of the parents as well as their genetic contribution and interaction with these variables determines the child’s weight.

"There is some evidence that early humans may have developed what is called a ‘trifty genotype’ at times of famine in order to survive," Roy says. She notes that metabolism became very efficient during food deprivation.

"The problem, though, is that when food became plentiful, the gene would not switch off," the nutritionist says, explaining, "It still would allow the body to be efficient and store large quantities of fat."

This genotype is thought, in part, to contribute to obesity, particularly in certain areas of the globe. The spread of Western life style, such as increased intake of low-fiber, highly processed food and decreased activity levels, is thought to contribute to the increased obesity in industrialized nations.

Roy says the three critical periods for development of obesity in children are during pregnancy, 5 to 7 years of age and adolescence. The metabolic profile of the mother during pregnancy influences the developing fetus. Some of the important things to consider during pregnancy are maternal insulin and glucose levels, maternal hormones and energy balance (excess or lack of energy).

"Alterations of all or some of these can alter the metabolic pattern that will be established in the growing fetus, and echoes of this will be seen 40 to 50 years later in development of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and kidney disease," Roy says.

At age 5 to 7, parental eating and exercise habits can influence the child and set him or her for lifelong leanness or battle with weight control. In adolescence, children may have erratic eating patterns and may be spending a lot of time watching television. Inactivity can cause exercise intolerance and, thereby, can compound the problem.

Roy says prevention and treatment of childhood obesity can be done by regulating body weight and fat by replacing unhealthy eating habits with healthy ones. Avoiding snacking and consumption of sweetened beverages are some simple steps that can reduce the risk of obesity in children.

Young children will select the foods they enjoy and eat them at adequate levels to maintain weight. Influencing the child with rewards or punishments will skew the development of normal eating habits.

Reducing sedentary behaviors such as television viewing and increasing leisure time activities helps maintain lower weight. Parental involvement in physical activity, particularly with young children, is very important in helping them develop healthy habits that can lead to maintenance of normal weight.

Additional information on family and consumer topics is available by contacting an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office. Also, log on to the Family and Consumer Sciences section under the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service at the LSU AgCenter Web site: http://www.lsuagcenter.com. 

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On the Internet: LSU AgCenter: http://www.lsuagcenter.com/ 

Source: Heli Roy (225) 578-3329, or HRoy@agcenter.lsu.edu

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