Preventing childhood obesity: It’s never too early to start

What’s the best way to prevent children from becoming obese?

While theories abound, one thing we’ve learned so far: It’s never too early to start.  A New England Journal of Medicine study last week showed that children who are overweight in kindergarten are much more likely to become obese teenagers. Other recent research suggests risks begin in the womb, and include a mother’s weight gain, blood sugar levels and smoking habits.  Risks may even stretch back generations; the great-grandchildren of a group of rats exposed to DDT had higher levels of fat and weight gain than progeny of those not exposed.

TEDMED 2013 speaker Peter Attia, an MD who conducts what his organization, NuSI, considers the most comprehensive research on the causes of diet-related diseases to date in adults, says that factors likely to trigger children to become overweight in the first place may indeed be present at birth, and are tough to surmount.

Does a typical school lunch contribute to food-related diseases?
Does a typical school lunch contribute to food-related diseases?

“Genetic factors aren’t as likely to explain changes over relatively short periods of time. The epigenetic factors – genetic factors turned on by environmental triggers – may have a lot to do with a mother’s eating behaviors while a child is in utero.  [Studies so far] certainly suggest that the quality of a mother’s diet plays a role in a child’s susceptibility to obesity and insulin resistance,” Attia says.

And these influences are only likely to grow along with a child, he says.

“There’s a whole host of systems and structures that got that child to be where they are; they’re probably related to socioeconomic status, education, and what the child consumed for the first five years of his or her life. All of those factors aren’t going to go away,” Attia says.

Communities are scrambling to catch up, and many are looking at the school environment as a logical start point. In TEDMED’s Google+ Hangout last week, Great Challenges team members and special guests discussed measures schools are taking to educate kids about good nutrition and ensure that they receive it on school premises. They include efforts to help schools procure locally grown fresh food for cafeteria lunches; on-site gardens where children harvest and study the science of food; and nutrition education and cooking classes. (Watch a video of the insights shared here.)

Will these interventions happen quickly and go far enough? Attia has hypothesized that foods high in sugar — juice, soda, candy bars, sugary cereals, and sauces — are prime culprits of diet-related illnesses like type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease.  And right now they’re commonly available in cafeterias and on school property.

The fast rise of these ills in children – as many as seven million cases of fatty liver disease in the U.S. – should be a wake-up call that vast changes are needed, starting with improved medical research on their causes, Attia says.

“Do we honestly want to continue reiterating the same dogma for the next 30 years that says ‘Just eat less and exercise more, and if you have the right moral fortitude you’ll be fine?’

“It’s been a scientific and policy failure in adults. All you have to do is look back when the mantra started, and look at how many people were obese, and how many had type 2 diabetes, and follow through on the amount of spending that’s gone to propagating that message, and compare that to the numbers today,” he says.

What’s happening to kids also reinforces what Attia expressed in his TEDMED talk:  That we mistakenly attribute obesity and its related diseases to a failure of personal responsibility.

“ ‘People who are obese and diabetic are morally corrupt.’ We don’t come out and say that, but that’s the implication. ‘These are bad people. These are lazy people who lack discipline.’

“But do we really believe that children are morally bankrupt, lazy, slothful entities who just choose to be gluttonous?  We have a hard time believing that for a five-year-old,” he says.

Stacy Lu