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Fight Childhood Obesity 64 Calories At a Time

Snacks contribute to childhood obesity

It sounds like a very simple way to fight a huge problem: eat 64 less calories per day to reduce childhood obesity. That’s how much less children should consume, on average, to meet the goals set by the federal government for reducing obesity rates by 2020, according to the authors of a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Childhood obesity is a growing problem

It’s no secret that childhood obesity is a major health issue and one that has been the focus of a number of programs, including Healthy People 2020. Healthy People 2020 is a program of the US Department of Health and Human Services, and among its 10-year objectives is to reduce the childhood obesity rate to 14.6% (seen in 2002) from its current rate of 16.9% and 2020 projected rate of 21.0%.

The 64-calorie-per-day reduction is merely an average. The study’s lead author, Y. Claire Wang, MD, ScD, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, explained in a release from the University that many children and adolescents would need to reduce caloric intake even more, and that the reduction could be achieved by increasing exercise along with reducing food intake.

To determine how many young people would be obese in 2020, the researchers evaluated data on obesity rates and height and weight information for youth ages 2 to 19 from National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys spanning more than 35 years. They then compared the projected obesity rate of 21% with the goal of 14.6% and calculated how much of an energy gap per day the average young person would need to close to reach the goal.

The energy gap is the daily difference between how many calories young people consume and how many they burn off through normal physical activity, growth, and body functions. While the 64 calorie figure is an average, some young people would need to cut back even more, based on how overweight they already are and by ethnic group.

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For example, the researchers estimated that white youths could close by gap by reducing intake by 46 calories per day, Mexican-American young people will need to cut calories by 91 per day to close the energy gap, while black children will need to reduce intake by 138 calories per day.

C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, a co-author of the study and senior scientist at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, explained that “Because we know that children and teens who already are overweight or obese will need larger reductions, and that preventing obesity will be more effective than treating it, we must focus our attention on the policy and environmental changes likely to have early, broad, and sustainable impacts.”

The investigators referred to research showing how the energy gap could be closed. For example:

  • All sugar-sweetened beverages in schools would be replaced with water, and children would not drink additional sugary drinks outside of school. This could reduce the energy gap by 12 calories per day
  • Kindergarten through fifth grade students should participate in after-school activity programs, which could help them burn 25 calories per day
  • Children aged 9 through 11 could engage in a comprehensive physical education program, which could burn 19 calories per day

Childhood obesity programs
A quick Internet search yields a wealth of childhood obesity programs that parents, teachers, and other concerned individuals can explore and, most importantly, get children to participate in them. For example:

  • We Can!, which stands for Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition. The program is the result of efforts by four institutes of the National Institutes of Health and “is a national movement designed to give parents, caregivers, and entire communities a way to help children 8 to 13 years old stay at a healthy weight.”
  • Let’s Move!, which is the program started by First Lady Michelle Obama. The goal of the program is to solve the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation.
  • Just For Kids!, which is marketed as the “nation’s leading obesity prevention program.” Just For Kids! was developed at the University of California School of Medicine and is a health education program for all children, helping them to change their diet, exercise, improve cardiovascular fitness, and more.

The challenge of childhood obesity will be overcome only if parents, caregivers, teachers, and others take initiative and help children through it, whether it’s 64 calories at a time or by some other approach.

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Image: Wikimedia Commons