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Childhood Obesity Research: Lessons from the Field

Because of varying reports on the state of childhood obesity in the United States, researchers explain why the subject needs further study.
Posted on Mar. 31st, 2014
Katie Allen
K-State Research and Extension
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Turn on the TV or open the morning newspaper—news of the U.S. obesity rate and the health problems associated with being obese or overweight are everywhere. A recent study reported in the media said that the obesity rate for young children, ages 2 to 5, has dropped 43 percent in the last decade. Still, other reports have said the rate has declined but not that much, has stayed the same or might even be up in different age groups.

“There is a lot of conflicting research out there, which has always been the case in regard to nutrition-related research,” said Paula Peters, assistant director for K-State Research and Extension, Family and Consumer Sciences. “It really does take some time to sort through all of the evidence and figure out what is happening.”

Peters, along with others in K-State’s College of Human Ecology, landed a five-year, $4.5 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to test community coaching as an effective method in reducing childhood obesity in seven states, including Kansas. The team is finishing up the third year of the project.

Sandy Procter, a K-State Research and Extension human nutrition specialist, is on the project with Peters. She said when people hear varying reports about the state of childhood obesity in the United States, they need to realize that nutrition is a relatively young science, and many factors related to nutrition and obesity need to be continually addressed by research.

“It’s only been about 100 years since the discovery of vitamins, so we’ve come a long way in 100 years,” Procter said. “I would encourage people, when they hear (varying reports) to be thankful that we are able to have ongoing research to discover new things.”

Obesity research at K-State

The NIFA project is just one of several research projects at K-State looking at childhood obesity. Peters, Procter and others at K-State are collaborating with extension staff and nutrition educators in seven states in the north-central part of the country to examine childhood obesity in 4-year-olds who live in rural, low-income communities. In addition to Kansas, the other states include Indiana, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Two similar communities in each state were identified in the first year of the project. Peters said the research team is working with community coalitions in each community with hopes to create a healthy environment so children are less likely to become overweight or obese.

The needs for a healthier environment, Peters said, could include anything related to family, the local preschool or school, churches and even the policies in the broader community that might be influencing childhood obesity. Those policies could affect whether or not there are safe places for children to play or opportunities for families to purchase healthy foods.

One community coalition in each state is given research-based information about combating obesity, while the other community coalition is given all of those things plus a trained community coach, Peters said.

Procter added that once the research team identified the community coaches in each of the seven states, the coaches formed a group and are able to learn from one another constantly. The coaches have received ongoing training to work with the community coalitions and specifically address the needs of 4-year-olds.

Studying 4-year-old children is important, Procter said, because they are still within their family structure, but they are beginning to be affected by the outside world, such as starting preschool.

“The 4-year-old is developing habits that they are going to carry with them throughout their life,” Peters added. “It seems to be a pretty important time for helping influence what they are going to do.”

The researchers say studying rural, low-income areas is also important, because much more research has been done in urban areas compared to rural areas.

“In general, we know that low-income people have a lot more health disparities as they age and are more likely to be overweight,” Procter said. “In public health, we talk about prevention is easier than curing. Looking at it at this early age can help identify those factors that need to be addressed.”

While the K-State team looks to finish the last two years of the NIFA project, other areas of research in obesity prevention have come to mind along the way. Procter said research is showing the possibility that mother and father weight status before pregnancy plays a role in determining the future weight status of their children.

“Current pregnancy and maternal policy is inching back toward assessing the mother’s weight and nutrition status prior to pregnancy and how much of a long-term effect that can have not only on that next generation but on future generations,” Procter said. “I think we are just on the verge of exciting information about weight. Where it really starts is just a huge question right now.”

Data from the past several years, Peters said, shows progress in lowering the obesity rate overall in the United States. Families and communities, from her perspective, are becoming more actively involved in creating a healthier environment for all people who live there.

“If you look at all of the studies together, it looks like we’re making some progress in stemming the tide of an increase in weight,” Peters said. “I don’t know if we can say we’re seeing fewer people being overweight or obese, but I think the curve is getting a little bit flatter.”

More information

While research continues to examine obesity causation and prevention, Procter said people could continue to help out in their local communities and take an active role in being part of the solution.

“If your community is trying to address healthier ways to celebrate in schools, or how healthier lunches might be addressed, be a thoughtful part of those deliberations and help make a difference,” she said.

You can find the most current information about nutrition recommendations and how to do your part in helping with weight and obesity issues at your local extension office.

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