Does Obesity Begin In Kindergarten?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Issues, Obesity

Is Obesity Caused By Bad Genes Or Bad Lifestyle?

 Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 In past issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have shared some common sense weight loss tips. But what if it is all for naught? What if there is nothing you can do about your weight?

Fat ChildYou may have seen the headlines suggesting that obesity in kindergarten is a very strong predictor of obesity later in life. If so, you are probably wondering what that means for your kids or grandkids – and what it means for you. You are probably asking questions like:

  • Should you be worrying about that your toddler’s baby fat?
  • What can you do as parents and grandparents to protect the ones you love from a lifetime of obesity and all of the health challenges that involves?
  • Is there anything you can do about overweight and obesity? Are some people just fated to be obese from childhood on?

What Does the Study Actually Show?

This was a very well done study. It followed 7738 children of all socioeconomic classes who were enrolled in kindergarten (mean age 5.6) in the US in 1998 and followed them through the 8th grade (mean age 14.1) (Cunningham et al, New England Journal of Medicine, 370: 403-411, 2014).

When the children entered kindergarten, 12.4% of them were obese, and another 14.9% of them were overweight. By the time they reached the 8th grade 20.8% were obese and 17% were overweight. Those results didn’t make the headlines. They are similar to many previous studies.

The results that made the headlines were:

  • Overweight 5 year olds were 4 times more likely to become obese by age 14 than normal weight 5 year olds.
  • 87% of obese 8th graders (14 year olds) had a body mass index above the 50th percentile in kindergarten, and 75% had a body mass index above the 70th percentile.
  • Only 13% of overweight 8th graders had been normal weight (<50th percentile) in kindergarten, and only 13% of the normal weight 8th graders had been overweight in kindergarten.

These results are fully consistent with earlier studies showing that overweight toddlers are likely to become overweight teens, and overweight teens are likely to become overweight adults. What was unique about this study (and generated the headlines) was the precision of the statistics.

Does Obesity Begin In Kindergarten?

The answer to that question is clearly yes. However, the more important question is what message we, as responsible health advocates, should be sharing with the general public. Let me break that down to some of the most important questions that you are probably asking.

Is Obesity Caused By Bad Genes Or Bad Lifestyle?

Bad GenesTaken on face value, the results of this study might seem to suggest that genetics is the primary cause of obesity. However, if that is the message we convey to the public, it is likely to simply fuel the perception that most overweight individuals are genetically destined to be obese. There is nothing they can do about it. So, why even bother trying?

However, the authors of the study also noted that the percentage of children aged 6 to 11 who are above the 95% percentile of weight has increased 4-fold between 1963 and 2000. Genetics does not change in a mere 37 years (37 generations maybe). That 4-fold increase in severe childhood obesity is clearly driven by lifestyle changes over the past 30 or 40 years.

While nobody knows the exact percentages, a reasonable interpretation of recent research in this area might be:

  • 10-15% of us are genetically destined to be obese. There is little we can do to change our weight, but a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce our risk of disease.
  • 10-15% of us are genetically predestined to be lean no matter what we eat (Yes. Your suspicions are true). Once again, lifestyle has relatively little influence on our weight, but a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce our risk of disease.
  • The other 70-80% of us are genetically predisposed to become obese if we adapt the typical American lifestyle. For most of us lifestyle choices can make a big difference in our weight as well as our health.

So the answer to this question is BOTH. For most of us, obesity is caused by bad genes AND bad lifestyle.

When Should We Intervene?

You probably already know that any extra fat cells we develop in childhood never go away. They are always with us, looking for those extra calories they can store as fat.

This study suggests that by the time we are in kindergarten, the die may already be cast. Those extra fat cells may have already developed.

And, for many people, the time to intervene may be even sooner. This study also showed that birth weight plays an important role as well. Children who weighed 9 pounds or more at birth were 2-fold more likely to be obese in kindergarten than children who weighed less than 9 pounds at birth.

Once again, a small percentage of overweight babies is due to genetics, but it is lifestyle choices during pregnancy that lead to the majority of overweight babies.

The authors of the study noted that most public health initiatives (school lunch programs, lifestyle education programs, etc.) are targeted at school aged children. The authors went on to say that by then it may be too late to have any significant effect on the incidence of obesity in our children.

They suggested that we need to place a stronger emphasis on influencing lifestyle changes that affect the weight of babies at birth and are likely to influence whether or not they become obese by the time they reach kindergarten.

That’s not the realm of public health policy. That’s our responsibility.

What Should We Do?

If You Are Pregnant:

  • The old adage “You are eating for two” was never true.
  • Aim for an extra 150 calories during the 1st trimester, 300 during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters (That’s 1 or 2 servings of healthy foods).
  • Aim for little or no weight gain during the 1st trimester and a total of 20-26 pounds during the last two trimesters (a bit less if you are overweight).

If You Have a Young Child Who Is Overweight:

  • Don’t restrict calories. Restricting calories can stunt growth and interfere with normal mental and physical development.
  • Encourage your kids to exercise rather than watching TV and playing video games. You may need to set the example, and that’s a good thing for you as well as for them.
  • Provide your kids with a healthy diet. For most kids, that means more fruits and vegetables and less sugary beverages, fruit juices, and processed snack foods. That may simply mean that you don’t bring those kinds of foods into your house. Again, that would probably be a good thing for everyone in the family.

I know some of you are saying “My kids won’t eat healthy stuff”. Let me give you my take on that.

When I was a kid, my mom had a pretty simple policy. If I didn’t like what she cooked, I didn’t have to eat it. I could simply wait until the next meal – when she would be serving the same kinds of healthy foods again.

I got the message pretty quick. It wasn’t eat healthy or eat junk food. It was eat healthy or go hungry. I decided early on that healthy was better than hungry.

Now, let me step down from my soapbox and summarize.

The Bottom Line:

1)     The latest research suggests that if a child is overweight by kindergarten, they are likely to be overweight for the rest of their lives. So if you want to spare your kids and grandkids  from a lifetime of obesity, you want to intervene early.

2)     A small percentage of those kids are destined to be obese no matter what they do. However, for the vast majority of them obesity can be prevented by a healthy lifestyle.

3)     If you are pregnant, don’t “eat for two”. That is terrible advice. If your pre-pregnancy weight is stable (neither increasing or decreasing), you only need to add a serving or two of healthy foods to your diet during pregnancy. Check with your doctor about the amount of weight gain that is right for you and follow their advice.

4)     If you have a young child who appears to be overweight, don’t restrict their calories. Instead, provide them with healthy food choices and encourage them to exercise.

5)     Finally, if you have been overweight since childhood, don’t despair. For most of us obesity is a combination of genetic predisposition and lifestyle choices. You can’t your genes, but you can change your lifestyle.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (1)

  • Darlene T. Ewers

    |

    I have four adult sons, who were born in 1969, 1972, 1977, and 1979, and none of them are obese or overweight due to poor diets. I enforced the rules outlined in the above article, by providing my sons with healthy snacks upon arrival home from school. They were then sent out to play outdoors until supper time. The rule was that they didn’t have to eat what I cooked, but they had to eat what they took. If they didn’t eat, they couldn’t substitute junk food for my meals.

    The first son is a physician’s assistant, the second is a licensed practical nurse, the third is a music teacher, and the fourth is a career Army officer. I’d say I did well by my children, teaching them the proper way to eat and enjoy good health for years to come!

    Reply

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Latest Article

Best Diet For Heart Disease Prevention

Posted July 9, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are The American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

What is the best diet for heart disease prevention? 

diet for heart disease preventionHeart disease is a killer. It continues to be the leading cause of death – both worldwide and in industrialized countries like the United States and the European Union. When we look at heart disease trends, it is a good news – bad news situation.

  • The good news is that heart disease deaths are continuing to decline in adults over 70.
  • The decline among senior citizens is attributed to improved treatment of heart disease and more seniors following heart-healthy diets.
  • The bad news is that heart disease deaths are starting to increase in younger adults, something I reported in an earlier issue, Heart Attacks Increasing in Young Women of “Health Tips From the Professor.”
  • The reason for the rise in heart disease deaths in young people is less clear. However, the obesity epidemic, junk and convenience foods, and the popularity of fad diets all likely play a role.

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

Of course, we don’t eat fats, carbohydrates, or proteins. We eat foods. That is why a recent study (T Meier et al, European Journal of Epidemiology, 34: 37-45, 2019) is so important. It reported which foods increase and which decrease the risk of premature heart disease deaths.

How Was The Study Done?

diet for heart disease prevention studyThe authors of the current study analyzed data from the “Global Burden of Diseases (GBD) Study”, a major world-wide effort designed to estimate the portions of deaths caused by various risk factors.

The current study focused on the impact of 12 dietary risk factors on heart disease deaths between 1990 and 2016 for 51 countries in four regions (Western Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia).

The dietary risk factors were:

  • Diets low in fiber, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids, and whole grains.
  • Diets high in sodium, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and trans fatty acids.

Saturated fat and meat were not explicitly included in the GBS Study data. However, diets low in polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats are likely high in saturated fats. Similarly, diets low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are likely higher in meats. The study also did not include dairy, and some recent studies suggest that some dairy foods may decrease heart disease risk.

For simplicity I will only consider the findings from Western Europe because their diet and heart disease death trends are similar to those in the United States.

 

Best Diet for Heart Disease Prevention?

plant-based diet bestThe study found that in 2016 (the last year for which data were available):

  • Dietary risk factors were responsible for 49.2% of heart disease deaths.
  • 6% of all diet-related heart disease deaths occurred in adults younger than 70, and that percentage has been increasing in recent years.

When they looked at the contribution of individual foods to diet related heart disease deaths, the percentages were:

  • Diets low in whole grains = 20.4%
  • Diets low in nuts and seeds = 16.2%
  • Diets low in fruits = 12.5%
  • Diets high in sodium = 12.0%
  • Diets low in omega-3s = 10.8%
  • strong heartDiets low in vegetables = 9.0%
  • Diets low in legumes = 7.0%
  • Diets low in fiber = 5.7%
  • Diets low in polyunsaturated fats = 3.7%
  • Diets high in processed meats = 1.6%
  • Diets high in trans fatty acids = 0.8%
  • Diets high in sugar-sweetened beverages = 0.1%

So, what is the best diet for heart disease prevention?

In short, this study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat was not included in the analysis, but it is likely that most people’s diets in this region of the world contained some meat. The most likely take-away is that meat does not affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis either, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in Western Europe.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

Are the American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

A recent study provides some important clues. It looked at dietary patterns associated with reduced risk of premature death from heart disease in Western Europe. The study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat did not appear to affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

For more details read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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