Researchers identify primary factors responsible for preschool obesity

A lack of adequate sleep, having parents with high body mass index (BMI), and having their eating habits restricted for weight control purposes are the three most significant risk factors when it comes to childhood obesity for preschoolers, according to researchers from the University of Illinois.

“We looked at 22 variables that had previously been identified as predictors of child obesity, and the three that emerged as strong predictors did so even as we took into account the influence of the other 19,” said Brent McBride, director of the university’s Child Development Laboratory. “Their strong showing gives us confidence that these are the most important risk factors to address.”

“What’s exciting here is that these risk factors are malleable and provide a road map for developing interventions that can lead to a possible reduction in children’s weight status,” he added. “We should focus on convincing parents to improve their own health status, to change the food environment of the home so that healthy foods are readily available and unhealthy foods are not, and to encourage an early bedtime.”

McBride and his colleagues collected data from a survey distributed to over 300 children and their parents, each of whom were recruited from east-central Illinois. Their findings were based on the first round of data collected when the youngsters were 2 years old, and a paper detailing their work was published last October in the journal Childhood Obesity.

The study authors reported a vast array of information regarding the subjects, including the healthy history of both the parents and the children, as well as eating practices.

Furthermore, research assistants also visited the homes of each subject, checked their height and weight, and subjected the information to statistical analysis. Based on the results of that analysis, the investigators were able to come up with several recommendations for families.

According to Illinois nutritional sciences graduate student Dipti Dev, parents should understand that they tend to pass their food preferences onto their children, and that those tastes are often firmly established during the preschool years. Food environments that cause moms and dads to be overweight or obese will likely have the same impact on young sons and daughters.

“Similarly, if you are a sedentary adult, you may be passing on a preference for television watching and computer games instead of playing chasing games with your preschooler or playing in the park,” she added, also warning that restricting access to some foods will only make cravings for those items increase.

“If kids have never had a chance to eat potato chips regularly, they may overeat them when the food appears at a friend’s picnic,” McBride said. He added that it is essential to change the food environment in the house, making sure that fruits, vegetables, and other healthy options are available when junk foods are not.

In addition, McBride said that parents need to remember that it will take multiple exposures to a certain type of food before he or she will try it and acquire a taste for it. Kids will need to be offered some foods several times, and they will also have to see their parents partaking of those products as well.

“Don’t use food to comfort your children when they are hurt or disappointed, do allow your preschoolers to select their foods as bowls are passed at family-style meals (no pre-plating at the counter – it discourages self-regulation), and encourage all your children to be thoughtful about what they are eating,” the university added.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Illinois Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program funded the study.

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