Obesity

Consequences of Sugar, Even Before Childhood

We often hear just how bad sugar is for your health. We also know that limiting sugars in children’s diets - in drinks and desserts, for example - is probably a good idea. Furthermore, a recent Harvard study has found that high sugar consumption (particularly fruit sugars and sugary drinks) during pregnancy might lead to increased asthma risks in their children, according to the New York Times.

 

The study builds on existing literature that links “obesity and poor [nutrition]” to “current increases in childhood asthma.” In the study, researchers tracked more than 1,000 women during their pregnancies and looked at their children’s asthma diagnoses by the time they were 3 to 7-years-old. The women who consumed the least amount of sugar in the study had 21 grams per day on average while women who consumed the most amount of sugar in the study had 46 grams per day on average. Researchers also collected data on the mothers’ education level and pre-pregnancy body mass index (BMI), as well as children’s BMI and race.

 

As a result, they found that the children of women who had the most sugar were 58 percent more likely to have asthma than the children of mothers who had the least amount of sugar during pregnancy. A lead author of the study noted that the mechanisms behind this difference is still unknow; however, the idea that a mother’s diet during her pregnancy could impact her children’s health years later is very important.

 

Once a baby is born, environmental and hereditary factors may influence the baby’s future health. Yet it seems that in some respects, prenatal environment may also contribute to children’s long-term health.






 

Weight, Language, and Self-Image

The language we use when talking to a child about their weight is very important. Doctors say that they themselves take great care in the words they choose when they talk to a child or their family member about weight and body mass index, even if their official classification falls under obesity.

 

The New York Times recently published a piece by pediatrician Dr. Perri Klass, who writes that physicians try to take care in order to avoid further hurting a child who may already be unhappy about their weight. A new policy statement jointly issued from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Obesity society urges pediatricians to use seemingly neutral words instead of words like “overweight” and “fat.”

 

Past and ongoing research into the social and emotional effects of obesity agree that comments on weight can have a large impact on a child’s self esteem. According to Dr. Rebecca Puhl, a clinical psychologist who is one of the lead authors of the policy statement, “Weight is now one of the most frequent reasons kids are teased or bullied.” One of her studies followed more than a thousand teenagers into their early thirties, and found that children who were bullied because of weight were correlated with binge eating, poor body image, and eating to cope with emotions (not to mention other eating disorders). These correlations, in turn, were linked to obesity in adulthood as well. The effect was present for men and women, but more pronounced for women.

 

Dr. Puhl says that healthcare professionals might be some of the few allies overweight children and teenagers can have. After all, they are most likely teased by family members as well as their peers. Another ally that comes to mind is teachers - where appropriate, they can intervene in a bullying situation, as well as promote body positivity and physical activity.

 

We can all be allies if we understand and recognize that making comments about a weight does not encourage positive change; instead, making comments about weight can result in negative, longterm impacts. It is important to make sure that children and teens have access to healthy, positive influences for their physical, mental, and emotional health.

Healthcare Costs and Exercising Children

An article in the New York Times describes a new study that used complex models to imagine what the health landscape of American children would look like if children exercised every day. The study found that the United States could save more than $120 billion a year in healthcare costs alone if all children exercised every day.

Researchers at the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University used computerized models that created avatars for each of the 31.7 million children in the United States currently between eight to 11-years-old. In keeping with real-life statistics, they programmed two thirds of these children to rarely exercise. The researchers then modeled each child’s calorie intake and “virtual body change” day by day, year by year, and tracked these simulated childhoods into adulthood. After these avatars reached adulthood, their health was modeled based on the predictive risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, etc.

The results were sobering. The models predicted that if eight to 11-year-olds were as inactive as predicted almost $3 trillion in medical expenses would be spent on this population. Furthermore, they would have lost productivity each year once they reach adulthood.

Even if this estimate is not perfectly precise, it is undeniable that the social price tag of physical inactivity is significant - inactive kids will grow to be sedentary adults whose health problems are not only expensive to treat but also cost the economy in lost wages and productivity. Childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes are only some of the many risks associated with a lack of exercise.

The same researchers also looked at the counterfactual and model of  how society would benefit if these children did exercise regularly. If half of the children in the U.S. were able to receive at least half an hour of exercise three times a week (the recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), childhood obesity would fall and the societal costs of obesity-related disease would drop by $32 billion. 

The numbers are undeniably compelling. The societal burden of disease stemming from lack of exercise would impact us all, regardless of how healthy we imagine ourselves to be. Today’s adolescents live with an unprecedented amount of distractions that might make physical activity seem less appealing, but getting proper exercise is not only a short-term benefit but also a long-term investment.

Study: Children’s Obesity Risks Increase During the Summer

This week’s topic may seem a bit funny in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, but it is very relevant any time of the year. 


Summer vacation is far away, but there’s reason to think about it ahead of time. A new national study (described here in the NYTimes) found evidence that obesity risks in young children are  higher when they are out of school than when they are in school. The fundamental question in debate surrounding obesity and children’s health is this: Does the cause of obesity exist primarily in school or outside of school? Recently, schools have updated their lunch menus, physical education classes ,and nutrition curriculums to reflect a growing awareness of obesity risks in  children. However, the findings of this study suggest that even with these improvements, healthy habits can be forgotten when they are not continued outside of school. 


Researchers hypothesized that if children's body mass index (BMI) grows the fastest during the school year, factors found in school environments could be a culprit for obesity risks. Conversely, they hypothesized that if BMI grows the fastest during the summer, that would mean the major risk factors could exist outside of school. They examined the weight gain of more than 18,000 children from the time they started kindergarten through when they finished second grade. The authors found that the prevalence of overweight or obese children increased between these years. A more striking finding was that the prevalence of being overweight or obese increased during summer vacation months, but did not increase during the school year. 


Intuitively, we can think of a few reasons why summertime might pose some weight control challenges for children. Children may go to sleep later and get less sleep during the summer, which could increase the risk for weight gain, according to another study in the New York Times. During summer breaks, students may also be prone to snacking and sedentary behaviors because recess and physical education classes are not scheduled into their daily routine.  Maintaining a healthy weight can be as challenging as maintaining reading and writing skills over the summer. Experts recommend that schools begin conversations with parents well before the school year ends to make plans for students’ diets and physical activity over the summer. These preemptive measures may be especially useful for students who may receive healthier meals at schools, but do not have access to nutritious food in their homes. 


Due to the holiday season, November and December is a time when young children spend more time at home with their families. Forming healthy behaviors during shorter breaks from school might help establish healthy habits that will last beyond long summer months. 

What Junk Food Does to Your Brain and Why Kids are Fighting Back to Get Healthier

 

We know that potato chips and sodas are addictive, but have you ever wondered about the science behind junk food? It turns out that junk food is actually as addictive as it is harmful to the body. Neuroscientists interviewed in The Atlantic found that foods like Oreos can be as addictive as psychoactive drugs, if not more so.  They discovered that “high-fat, high-sugar foods are stimulating the brain’s [pleasure centers]” in the same way that drugs can. A 2010 study cited in the article confirmed the addiction phenomenon when they fed lab rats bacon, sausage, cheesecake, and frosting for 40 days. With brain imaging, the researchers found the rats’ resulting brain activity to resemble that of cocaine and heroin addicts.

What does this mean? For children whose dietary staple may include snack foods, they may become conditioned to expect and crave junk food at an early age. This exacerbates the picky eating problem we discussed last week, and also contributes to other very real problems in children’s health like obesity.

Even though young children may be the targets of advertising companies who spend a fortune on researching methods to make junk food even more irresistible, study shows that teens are fighting back. Researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Texas studied methods to help teens beat advertisers at their own game. Instead of “focusing on a future, healthier you” that seems abstract, these researchers introduced teenagers to an “exposé” article highlighting the manipulative methods of food industry executives and consultants as they strategized to get young people to eat more unhealthy food. In this way, choosing to eat healthy food became an act of rebellion against a socially unjust system of “controlling, hypocritical adults” that was conspiring to keep teens unhealthy.

Explaining to students about the importance of healthy food was just not enough. Students who read the expose article were more likely to associate healthy eating with autonomy and social justice. The success of this study suggests that teenagers and young students want to exert more control over their own health because they strongly associate their health with their independence. If anything can beat chemical addiction, it could very well be a student’s willpower to take charge of their own health.

Read a more detailed summary of this study here.