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What's the Best Diet for Overweight Children-Less Calories or More Exercise?

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Exercising diet

Researchers from the University of North Carolina have discovered that the caloric intake differences between overweight children under nine years of age and overweight children older than nine are quite different in comparison to their same-age normal weight peers.

Using data collected from the dietary reports of 19,125 children ages 1-17 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), researchers used number-crunching statistical analyses to examine and compare by age and weight just how many calories overweight children were eating in comparison to their non-overweight peers.

What the researchers discovered was a surprising reversal of calories consumed seen between children nine and younger to those who were over nine.

Overweight children who are nine and younger consume more calories than their same-age non-overweight peers. No surprises there. However, overweight children above the age of nine actually consume fewer calories than their same-age, non-overweight peers! So, what’s going on? Shouldn’t it be expected that overweight teens are consuming more calories than non-overweight teens? According to the study’s lead author, Asheley Cockrell Skinner, Ph.D. their counterintuitive findings may be due to that by obesity gaining a head start in early childhood, it likely promotes obesity during the following teen years.

“Children who are overweight tend to remain overweight,” says Skinner. “So, for many children, obesity may begin by eating more in early childhood. Then as they get older, they continue to be obese without eating any more than their healthy weight peers. One reason this makes sense is because we know overweight children are less active than healthy weight kids. Additionally, this is in line with other research that obesity is not a simple matter of overweight people eating more—the body is complex in how it reacts to amount of food eaten and amount of activity."

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According to a University of North Carolina Health Care press release, Skinner also discusses how their results may play a role in adopting different diet strategies for treating obesity in children based on their age.

“It makes sense for early childhood interventions to focus specifically on caloric intake, while for those in later childhood or adolescence the focus should instead be on increasing physical activity, since overweight children tend to be less active,” says Skinner. "Even though reducing calories would likely result in weight loss for children, it’s not a matter of wanting them to eat more like healthy weight kids—they would actually have to eat much less than their peers, which can be a very difficult prospect for children and, especially, adolescents."

These findings “have significant implications for interventions aimed at preventing and treating childhood obesity,” says Skinner.

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. From 1980 to 2008, the percentage of obese children has increased from 7 percent to approximately 20 percent. For 12 to 19-year-olds, obesity has increased from 5 percent to 18 percent.

The CDC acknowledges that while being overweight or obese is due to too many calories consumed relative to too few calories burned—such as through exercise—that other factors such as genetic, behavioral and environmental play a role in children becoming overweight and obese.

Image Source: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Reference: “Self-Reported Energy Intake by Age in Overweight and Healthy-Weight Children in NHANES, 2001–2008” Pediatrics 10 Sept. 2012; Asheley Cockrell Skinner, Ph.D. et al.