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A lifetime of obesity-related health problems can start as soon as preschool for some children – but initial research indicates that intense, early intervention can make a difference.
Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s developed a six-month program aimed at 2-to-5-year-olds that includes a mix of office-based parent counseling and home visits. The goal: to teach parents healthier living methods, from how to introduce healthy foods to fussy eaters to encouraging physical activity even when kids are stuck inside.
The researchers published results of their pilot study online April 15, 2010, in the journal Obesity.
Initial findings from the Learning about Activity and Understanding Nutrition for Child Health (LAUNCH) program were based on 18 families. The results from this small group were encouraging enough for the NIH to award $3.25 million to expand the project to 168 more families.
Recruitment begins in February 2012. Participating children, ages 2-5 with a body-mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile, will be randomly assigned to treatment or control groups and then tracked for two years.
The number of obese children aged 2 to 5 in the U.S. has grown from 5 percent in the 1970s to 10.4 percent in 2000 to 13.9 percent in 2004.
“There is no single reason for the increase in obesity in this age group,” says Lori Stark, PhD, principal investigator for the LAUNCH project and director, Division of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology. “We initially thought treating obesity might be easier in this population because parents have more control over the child’s food and activity. But, among other things, we were quite surprised at how hard it was for parents to set limits on the types and amount food preschool age children eat.”
Other reported challenges include perceived lack of time for meal making, difficulty encouraging physical activity, the parents’ own obesity level and the inherent unwillingness of many young children to try new foods.
The pilot study found that achieving measurable changes in behavior in this high-risk group involves intense effort.
The Cincinnati Children’s program includes repeated meetings with experts in child psychology and nutrition. Participants get a half-dozen home visits, including staffers who show up with big red boxes to assist in removing unhealthy foods from the home.
“We spend a lot of time with these families,” Stark says. “We work to take the stress out of making healthy food so that busy parents aren’t as tempted to just buy fast food.”
Lori Stark, PhD, studies a six-month intervention program for young obese children.
- Nearly 14 percent of children ages 2 to 5 are obese, up from 5 percent in the 1970s
- An obese preschooler at age 5 years is 48 times more likely than a non-obese child to be overweight at age 12. Obese and overweight teens are much more likely to remain obese as adults.
- Childhood obesity can lead to type 2 diabetes, a leading cause of disability and death.
- Some obese children also build plaque in their blood vessels, increasing the odds of a heart attack or stroke later in life.
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