KIDS
May 11, 2011

New Strategies Prevent Obesity

Just having kids cut their fat intake does not help them lose weight. So what does work?

Childhood obesity is on everyone's minds, including First Lady Michelle Obama's. But what's the best way to help children who have already put on unwanted pounds? A new study set out to determine how children would be affected by reducing their fat intake by switching to low- and reduced-fat dairy products. Would they lose weight over the study’s six month period or remain the same weight as their full-fat-consuming counterparts?

Cutting fat and cutting carbs are two of the most popular weight loss methods. Both can work, but the bottom line in weight-loss is the tried-and-true: burning off more calories than you consume.

When people slash specific food groups from their diet, they may 'make up for' these lost calories by adding calories, perhaps unwittingly, in other parts of the diet.

Dieting by cutting out certain foods – carbs or fats – can backfire. When people slash specific food groups from their diet, they may "make up for" these lost calories by adding calories, perhaps unwittingly, in other parts of the diet. For example, studies have found that in adults, cutting saturated fat is no help to the heart if the bad fats are replaced with bad carbs.

The same is true for kids and adolescents who are overweight or obese and trying to lose weight. Childhood obesity puts kids at risk for many health problems in the future: according to the CDC, many overweight and obese kids have at least one marker for cardiovascular disease. Even eating too much sugar can increase kids’ cholesterol levels.

Cutting the Fat — Why It Doesn't Always Work

The study followed 145 children between the ages of four and 13, and their parents. They divided the participants into two groups: one group was educated on the benefits of dairy while at the same time asked to replace regular-fat dairy products with reduced- and low-fat products. The other half of the participants (the control group) were told about reducing screen time as a healthy habit, which served as a non-dietary, lifestyle comparison.

Kids in the low-/reduced-fat group weighed no less than the control group at the end of the study, and their waist circumference and BMIs also remained the same.

The kids kept to their respective diets for 24 weeks. The children’s saturated fat intake was tracked, along with overall energy (calorie) intake and nutrient consumption. (The children and their caregivers filled out detailed questionnaires about the types of foods they ate, including brands, quantities, and locations in which the foods were consumed.) Blood fat levels were also tracked, and weight was measured using the body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference.

Total fat intake was slightly reduced over the six-month study (from 17% of total calories to 13 %), In the kids who changed their eating habits; so was their saturated fat intake (from 16% to 13%). Though this is a significant change, their fat intake was still higher than the recommended 10%. The kids who switched to low- and reduced-fat dairy also had a significant drop in their cholesterol levels.

But waistlines did not reflect the changes in diets. Kids in the low-/reduced-fat group weighed no less than the control group at the end of the study, and their waist circumference and BMIs also remained the same. This suggests that kids were making up for lost calories from fat in other ways. Indeed, the analysis of the kids’ eating habits showed that the proportion of protein and carbs changed as time went on, compared to the beginning of the study. This finding, published in the May issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, led the authors to suggest that kids may make up for lost calories in other ways, perhaps using the low-fat label as an excuse to indulge in high calorie treats.

Helping Kids Form Healthy Habits

One way to help kids eat better and stay at healthy weights is to change the "family norms" — the behaviors in the family as a unit, since kids learn so well by example. Another recent study has found that children who eat with their families a few times a week are not only slimmer, but also who have healthier attitudes towards food.

This large study analyzed previous research that included over 182,000 children and their families. The team analyzed the families’ eating habits, including how often the families ate together, how healthy their regular diets were, and the likelihood that any of the children were overweight or suffered from disordered eating behaviors. The team found that eating just three or more meals per week together reduced the children’s odds of being overweight by 12%. Perhaps responsible for this was the fact that these kids were 24% more likely to eat healthy foods and 20% less likely to eat "junk" foods like fried foods, soda, and sweets. Adolescents who ate with their families were also 35% less likely to have eating disorders like bingeing/purging, abusing laxatives, and skipping meals to lose weight.

Children who eat with their families a few times a week are not only slimmer, but also who have healthier attitudes towards food.

Childhood obesity has become a major concern in the last 30 years, with rates rising to almost 20%, according to the CDC. The amount of fat a person needs (and carbs and protein, for that matter) depends on one’s body type and activity level, and because each person is different, finding the right balance for your child’s (and your own) body is important. The CDC recommends that kids ages 4-18 get 25-35% of their calories from fat, and everyone, kids and adults included, should try to limit their daily saturated fat intake to less than 10%. The USDA recently revised their guidelines to reflect the latest information on the optimal ratios of all the food groups, but they stress that when it comes to food recommendations: "One size doesn’t fit all."

Let’s Be Role Models in Healthy Attitudes towards Food

The two studies echo what more and more research is showing: moderation and healthy support networks are the keys to good health. The first suggests that cutting down on one component of the diet may not work so well for kids, just as it can backfire for adults. Reducing calories sensibly, but keeping all the food groups well-represented, and adding fun activities for kids, is likely the way to go. Gilly Hendrie, a researcher at Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization in Australia and lead author of the first study, tells us that "in general children should not cut out food groups altogether because each food group provide[s] nutrients important for growth and health." Since kids are growing, it’s particularly important to help them lose weight slowly, preferably with the guidance of a medical or weight loss professional.

The second study by a team at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and published in the May 2, 2011 issue of the journal Pediatrics supports the idea that kids do best when they share meals with family members (who also practice healthy eating). Being a role model for your kids by making good food choices yourself will help them lay down healthy habits for themselves. And making time to sit down to eat together will show them that mealtime should be nourishing — for both body and mind.

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