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Free online tool predicts your child's obesity risk

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
childhood obesity, risk, prevention, intervention

Pardon the pun, but obesity is a growing problem in the United States - and that is no laughing matter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese. Since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled. There are significant racial and ethnic disparities in obesity prevalence among US children and adolescents. In 2007-2008, Hispanic boys, aged 2 to 19 years, were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white boys, and non-Hispanic black girls were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white girls. Childhood obesity has been on the rise in the United States, a trend that is putting many children at risk for a multitude of health problems, from cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure to early type 2 diabetes.

Many parents are well aware of the alarming obesity rate of US children; thus, they are on the lookout for ways to keep their child healthy and physically fit as they grow up. A new, simple-to-use online tool is now available to predict the risk of their child becoming obese. Becoming aware of the risk might empower the parents to seek out measures to reduce that risk. The online calculator was developed by researchers at the Imperial College London; it can strongly predict a baby’s probability of becoming obese during childhood.

The calculator requires input of simple data such as the child’s birth weight, number of household members, and the mother and father’s body mass indexes (BMI). The mother’s occupation and her gestational smoking habits (smoking during pregnancy) are also taken into consideration. The calculator can then provide a percentage of predicted probability of obesity.

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Hypothetical example:
A couple with BMIs of 25, the mother a non-smoker working a professional job, both living in a two-person household: If they just gave birth to a nearly 8-pound baby, the likelihood of their child being overweight or obese is only 2.05%. However, once you change the mother’s occupation from a professional job to unskilled or unemployed, the child’s likelihood soars to 14.25%.

The formula used by the calculator was derived from data from an ongoing 1986 study, which followed 4,000 children born in Finland over the course of their lives. Initially, the researchers evaluated a variety of different factors that could potentially explain the population’s obesity, ranging from genetic variants to environmental and lifestyle factors. After reviewing the data, the researchers determined the most predictive factors (lifestyle and environmental) that could accurately predict childhood obesity up to 85% of the time. Among the children tested with the obesity calculator, the 20% with the highest likelihood of obesity at birth comprised 80% of obese children. Of note, while initially tested and analyzed, genetic variations associated with obesity were ultimately not very reliable in predicting a child’s probability of obesity.

To access the obesity calculator, click on this link.

Take home message:
The risk of most health conditions is dependent upon genetic and environmental factors. For example, a heavy smoker has a greatly increased risk of lung cancer and a woman who is a carrier of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene has a significantly risk of breast cancer. An interesting finding of this study is that environmental factors were, in general, more responsible for obesity risk than genetic factors. I advise all parents to access the risk calculator. If the risk is high, consult a healthcare professional and discuss interventional methods. These methods are primarily based on common sense (i.e., a healthy diet and exercise program). Don’t forget that you are the parent. If your kid dumps sugary snacks in your shopping cart, remove them and explain why. Do not feel you are home free, if the calculator places your child at low risk for obesity. Peer pressure and other influences can still up your child‘s obesity risk.

See also:
Health advocacy organization PHA combatting child obesity with Play Streets
Health advocacy organization PHA wants public input to fight childhood obesity epidemic
Keep your kids thin with sugar-free beverages
Chemical BPA in food linked to childhood obesity
CDC releases sad statistics regarding obesity in the US