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

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

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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