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April 2010

Excess snacking contributes
to rise in childhood obesity

A new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has found that high-calorie snacking is proving to be a major cause of childhood obesity. According to their research findings, chips, candy and other snack foods account for up to 27 percent of the daily caloric intake for children, age 2 to 18.

What the news
means to you

The best nutrition program for kids involves a family member, according to YNHH's Sonia Caprio, MD

Federal nutrition surveys on food and eating habits of more than 31,000 children were studied from 1977 to 2006. The results of the data concludes that childhood snacking trends are moving toward three snacks per day, and more than 27 percent of children's daily calories are coming from snacks. The largest increases have been in salty snacks and candy, with desserts and sweetened beverages the major sources of calories from snacks.

The study, published in the March edition of the journal Health Affairs, is among the first to study long-term trends in childhood eating habits. The study suggests children are eating almost continually throughout the day.

"Our study shows that children, including very young children, eat snacks almost three times a day," said author Barry Popkin, PhD, professor of nutrition at UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health. "Such findings raise concerns that more children in the United States are moving toward a dysfunctional eating pattern, one that can lead to unhealthy weight gain and obesity."

The study also revealed that between 1977 and 2006, children of all ages increased their caloric intake from snacks by an average of 168 calories per day, up to a total of 586 calories. The largest increase was found in children age 2 to 6, who consumed an extra 181 calories per day during snack time compared to two decades earlier.

Childhood obesity has become a growing problem that has put millions of children at risk for diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The prevalence of obesity among children age 6 to 11 increased from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 19.6 percent in 2008. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents age 12 to 19 increased from 5 percent to 18 percent.

What the news means to you

By Sonia Caprio, MD

The prevalence of obesity in children and adolescents in the United States has increased dramatically and continuously over the last four decades. This public health epidemic contributes to an array of health problems including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and asthma in youth. Childhood obesity affects an enormous and growing number of families around the world, but the vast majority of these cases are preventable, and can still be reversed. Understanding how children become obese or overweight in the first place is an important step toward breaking the cycle.

Most cases of childhood obesity are caused by eating too much and exercising too little. Children need enough food to support healthy growth and development. But when they take in more calories than they burn throughout the day, the result is weight gain.

Treatment of obesity in children and adolescents includes nutrition education, exercise, and behavioral modification that, ideally, includes a family member. Doctors and other health care professionals are the best people to determine whether your child or adolescent's weight is healthy, and they can help rule out rare medical problems as the cause of unhealthy weight. Parents should regularly communicate with their pediatrician about appropriate nutrition and physical activity.

At Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital, a multi-disciplinary team of clinicians who care for children and adolescents with type 2 diabetes and other complications of childhood obesity provide a range of services that includes one-on-one counseling and a novel lifestyle intervention program that includes behavior modification and supervised exercise training.

The pediatric endocrine program incorporates a varied approach to addressing childhood obesity through prevention, education and understanding its causes. A teen weight management program that includes counseling, healthy lifestyle recommendations, nutrition and cognitive therapy is led by experts in their respective fields.

There is a great deal that families can do to promote healthy active living and support each other in staying healthy. For starters:

  • Eat meals together as a family, as often as possible.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast, every day.
  • Cut down on the amount of fat and calories in your family's diet .
  • Prepare foods at home as a family.
  • Encourage your children to drink water and to limit intake of beverages with added sugars, such as soft drinks, fruit juice drinks and sports drinks.
  • Eat healthy snacks such as fat-free or low-fat milk, fresh fruit, and vegetables instead of soft drinks or snacks that are high in fat, calories or added sugars; and low in essential nutrients. Low-fat yogurts, low-sugar cereal, peanut butter on saltines or wheat bread are healthy and affordable snacks.
  • Discourage eating meals or snacks while watching TV.
  • Limit fast food, take out, and eating out; and choose wisely when buying take-out foods.

In addition, talk with your child's school about the need for daily recess. Studies show children learn better when they take breaks throughout the day and take part in physical activity. Also, become an advocate for healthier lunches at your child's school.

Dr. Caprio is an attending pediatric endocrinologist at Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital and a professor of pediatric endocrinology at Yale School of Medicine.

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