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

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, 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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