Kids can take steps to combat obesity
By CHRISTINE DELL'AMORE, UPI Consumer Health Correspondent
WASHINGTON (UPI) -- Small changes in diet and exercise can go a long way in preventing weight gain in heavy kids, according to a new study.
Over a six-month period 67 percent of overweight children who took 2,000 more steps daily and cut 100 calories of sugar were able to maintain or reduce their percent body mass index. BMI, a measure of body fat based on height and weight, is often used to determine obesity.
"In the past few years, I've become absolutely convinced that the only way we're going to tackle the obesity epidemic is through small changes," said James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. The study was conducted on behalf of America on the Move, a national weight-gain prevention initiative that Hill co-founded. He presented his research at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting Sunday in San Francisco.
"I spent 25 years trying to help people make big changes, and it wasn't working. If you can't make small changes, you can't make the big ones," he said.
One-third of U.S. children are either overweight or obese, and few prevention strategies have helped stem the tide of growing waistlines. The research provides the first clinical evidence that overweight children can keep weight gain in check by making only minor changes.
Hill and colleagues recruited 216 families with at least one overweight child to participate in the study and divided them into two groups. Families in the intervention group made the small changes requested, and families in the self-monitor group were asked to record their activity and diet in a journal.
Kids and parents used pedometers to monitor how many steps they took a day. They also replaced soda with drinks sweetened by Splenda, a sugar substitute. Splenda's manufacturer, McNeil Nutritionals, provided some funding to the study, along with the National Institutes of Health.
The intervention group participants were most successful in avoiding weight gain, but some in the self-monitor group also kept their weight steady, simply by keeping track of their diet and exercise.
And parents of the overweight kids in the intervention group also benefited; they avoided the one to two extra pounds the average American adult picks up each year.
Hill acknowledges losing weight is tough -- Americans have to fight an environment that encourages overeating and sedentary behavior. That's why prevention can't only focus on the kids.
"You can't have parents lying on the couch eating high-fat foods, saying, 'Go outside,'" Hill said. "They have to set an example."
Families in the study took walks after dinner, on the weekends, and even competed to "out-step" each other, Hill said.
A baby-step approach to weight management is likely to be more doable and sustainable than dramatic changes, said Gary Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at the Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
"If you say to someone, 'I want you to work at a behavioral intensity of 10,' you'll get a quick result. But if you do a more principled approach that makes small changes, these last longer than more short-lived, dramatic ones," Foster said.
Doctors already endorse a small change approach for adults by building on healthy behaviors incrementally, said Donna Ryan, a professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge.
Ryan wasn't surprised the self-monitor group didn't gain weight; she said self-recording has been shown to help keep the pounds off.
In general, science needs more evidence-based approaches to the childhood obesity epidemic, Ryan said. There aren't enough studies looking at the phenomenon.
The consequences of a nation of overweight kids could be weighty.
In recent years, doctors have started to notice more cases of type 2 diabetes in children, a condition usually found in older adults. Type 2 diabetes is often followed by heart disease and cancer. "This isn't a 'maybe bad things are going to happen,'" Hill said. "If you have 35 percent of kids as overweight, higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and cancer are down the road."
Hill emphasized the small change approach is not a weight loss program -- only a weight gain prevention strategy. "This isn't the answer to childhood obesity," Hill said.
But it's good news for families, who haven't had much good news when it comes to weight.
"This is something every family can do, and they can start it right now," he said.