Obesity Rising Among Youngest Americans

Friday, June 4 2010

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho – As a nation, the U.S. is not only getting fatter, it’s getting fatter at an alarmingly early age. Overweight and obesity in children aged 0 to 5 years is rising for the first time in America’s history.

Obesity among infants and children is such a new phenomenon that few studies have focused on this age group, said Laurel Branen, nutrition professor at University of Idaho Coeur d'Alene and nationally recognized expert on feeding young children, ages 0-5, in a group setting.

“It wasn’t an issue before, so we can’t go back and look at 30 years of research,” Branen said. “They’ve never looked at the obese 2-year-old, because overweight at that age was an anomaly.”

Branen recently was asked to serve on the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Obesity Prevention Polices for Young Children. The committee includes renowned researchers, child care practitioners, pediatricians and policy makers, brought together to shape evidence-based obesity prevention policy.

Early childhood obesity is no longer an anomaly. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, currently about 33 percent of American adults are obese. Among American children 2-5 years of age, 10.4 percent were obese according to the most recent figures from 2007-08.

Obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above. To calculate a child’s BMI, divide weight in pounds by height in inches squared, then multiply by a conversion factor of 703.

While obesity rates for very young children are not yet available, rates determining that children 0-5 are at risk for overweight/obesity are concerning, said Branen.

Obese children and adolescents have increased risk for cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes, and are more likely to become obese as adults. In addition, obese adults are at increased risk for coronary heart disease, cancers and stroke.

Branen and the committee have identified several factors that increase the likelihood of very early obesity, including the amount of time a young child spends in front of a variety of screens. Increased weight is directly associated with screen time.

“Some inappropriate habits are being established in early childhood,” Branen said. “About three or four years ago, a study was done by the American Dietetic Association that found a high percentage of children and teenagers with TVs and refrigerators in their rooms. Now, they’re finding that’s true for children ages 0-5.”

“As long as a parent keeps the fridge stocked, there’s no reason for a kid to come out of their room,” Branen said.

Sadly, she points out, they don’t emerge as often as they used to, not even to eat dinner or play outside.

The demise of the nightly family dinner is a factor in obesity. Research has shown that ritual, shared, nightly meals decrease children's likelihood of smoking, drinking and drug abuse, among other vices, and positively impact many aspects of their social, personal and academic success.

Bringing families back to the table is a challenge. Reversing the trend toward inactivity is also challenging.

“Many children today can’t play outside,” Branen said. “They don’t know what to do once they’re out there. With videos games, they’ve become used to a story line being made up by someone else; they become fairly passive in terms of their entertainment. But children need active play. It is essential for developing motor skills and for cognitive development.”

Branen currently is working with University of Idaho Professor Janice Fletcher, whose expertise is child development and feeding young children, and Susan L. Johnson, a researcher at the University of Colorado Denver, to develop a website for training childcare professionals on best feeding practices for young children.

Health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend at least one hour of vigorous play per day for young children, but young children don’t naturally log that 60 minutes all at once.

“Young Children are vigorously active for 10 or 15 minutes at time, then they stop to rest for a moment. During this rest, they often make a plan, or clarify some point in their story,” said Branen. “Then they’re vigorously active again, to the point where no adult can keep up with them. They have a real ebb and flow of activity that’s very natural to early childhood.”

On one level, obesity seems to be symptomatic of a changing definition of childhood: in the new millennium children are sitting down, in front of screen generally, and being quiet, just as parents have been requesting of them for decades. But the activities they are missing, from raucous, creative play to quiet family dinners, may well be the key ingredients for healthy childhood and adulthood.

“It’s getting really kind of frightening,” said Branen.

For more information on the Institute of Medicine or the Committee on Obesity Prevention Polices for Young Children, visit www.iom.edu.
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. The university is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu.

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu.