We’re used to talking about obesity in adults, but we often neglect to notice that the same epidemic has reached our children. In this context, a new study may be a silver lining. Scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that early treatment of child obesity is effective, and can safeguard children from the potential long-term health risks. They have some important tips for parents to share.
The childhood obesity epidemic has reached alarming heights
A shocking report from the WHO reveals that the number of obese children worldwide has increased by ten times in the last 40 years. There are over 14 million obese kids in the US alone, translating to nearly 20 percent of all children.
A study published in 2016 suggests that obese children are likely to develop heart, bladder, and liver-related health problems when they grow up. Moreover, pediatric obesity may also make them more susceptible to depression at a young age.
“Childhood obesity is connected with an increased risk of various diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular, stroke, certain types of cancer later in life, social problems and depression among youth,” the study authors note.
Basically, obesity has the power to turn kids into patients. However, since parents are not aware of its long-term consequences, they often tend to ignore it.
“It’s a multifaceted problem. There’s a distinct lifestyle component that is dictated largely by the parents’ choices. Children aren’t the ones making food choices or deciding to go out for fast food two or three times a week,” said Dr. Ashley Wells, a physician at Children’s Medical Center in Pennsylvania.
The new study tested three easy-to-implement treatment strategies for child obesity. These methods involve both kids and their parents and show that with some little effort a healthy lifestyle can be promoted among kids.
Testing three ways that deal with child obesity
The researchers performed a randomized controlled study on 170 medically diagnosed obese children. The study began when the children were four years old and lasted till they turned six. The kids and their parents were divided into three groups based on the treatment they received.
The first group underwent standard treatment during which they met with doctors and attended sessions aimed at improving diets. The second and third groups only involved the parents, who received guidance on how to promote healthy lifestyles in their families. The third group received follow-up telephone support over the course of the study length.
When asked what topics these conversations exactly touched upon, Paulina Nowicka, who is the principal study investigator and a professor in Pediatric Science at Karolinska Institutet, said:
“Such conversations can center on how to set boundaries, how to teach children new behaviors and how to communicate with preschools, grandmothers, neighbors and other adults in the children’s world.”
For instance, “You need to do things together to strengthen family bonds, like getting the child involved in the cooking, giving the child vegetables if they’re hungry, and not rewarding them with food. It’s also important to make sure that food isn’t associated with emotions and achievement,” she added.
For instance, the Swedish researchers advise parents to make lifestyle choices that not only help prevent obesity but also strengthen family bonds, such as :
- getting the child involved in the cooking
- giving the child vegetables if they’re hungry
- not rewarding them with food.
- make sure that food isn’t associated with emotions and achievement
According to the researchers, most parents usually know this stuff, but they fail to apply them on a regular basis. The treatments — and especially the follow-up — served as reminders of the things parents need to do to prevent obesity in their children.
After two years, the researchers evaluated the obesity and overall health of all the children. They found that the weight of kids in all three groups improved.
“The children whose parents received parental support had the best results, especially so those who also received follow-up phone calls. We also found that more children in this third group showed a clinically relevant improvement of their weight status associated with better metabolic health, by which I mean better levels of blood lipids and glucose,” Nowicka said.
Treating obesity during childhood is more effective
Obesity is a result of bad eating habits and lifestyle choices, and over time it becomes a struggle to lose weight. The treatment also becomes more complex, and this is also why it is difficult to overcome obesity with age.
This logic also applies in the case of obese children. The authors suggest that obesity treatment is safer and more effective for kids who are in their preschool years i.e. under five or six years.
So the earlier the parents start focusing on addressing the factors that make their children obese, the more they are likely to succeed.
“Treating children at that (pre-school) age is much more effective than if you start treating them in their teens. Some adolescents are looking at possible bariatric surgery and we hope that this can be avoided with earlier treatment.”
The study is published in the International Journal of Obesity.
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