Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
A new study from researchers at the University of North Carolina has found that fast food isn’t necessarily the cause of childhood obesity – it’s a symptom.
The study, which was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, said poor dietary habits that obese children learn at home are the main cause of their weight problems.
“This is really what is driving children’s obesity,” said study author Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “Eating fast foods is just one behavior that results from those bad habits. Just because children who eat more fast food are the most likely to become obese does not prove that calories from fast foods bear the brunt of the blame.”
In the study, researchers looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected between 2007 and 2010. The team analyzed dietary intake in nearly 4,500 children between 2 years and 18 years old. The children were categorized as being non-consumers of fast food, low consumers (less than or equal to 30 percent of calories from fast food) or high consumers (more than 30 percent of calories from fast food).
The researchers discovered that fast food is only a small portion of a larger dietary pattern established by children’s parents and caregivers. The obese children’s diet often includes too few fruits and vegetables and too much processed food and overly-sweet beverages. This unhealthy diet pattern is often reinforced in the meals students are offered as school lunches.
“The study presented strong evidence that the children’s diet beyond fast- food consumption is more strongly linked to poor nutrition and obesity,” said study author Jennifer Poti, doctoral candidate in UNC’s Department of Nutrition. “While reducing fast-food intake is important, the rest of a child’s diet should not be overlooked.”
Popkin noted that a better understanding of the patterns behind childhood obesity is important in the attempt to foster healthier habits, such as the reduction of sugary drink consumption and the greater inclusion of fresh vegetables and fruits.
“Children who rely on fast foods may tend to have parents who do not have the means, desire or time to purchase or prepare healthy foods at home,” Popkin said. “This is really what is driving children’s obesity and what needs to be addressed in any solution.”
Another study published this week from University of Illinois researchers found three main predictors for preschool obesity risk: a lack of adequate sleep, having parents with high body mass index (BMI) and having their eating habits restricted for weight control purposes.
Published in the journal Childhood Obesity, the study included data from a survey sent to over 300 children and their parents living in east-central Illinois. The study’s conclusion was based on the first round of data collected when the youngsters were two years old.
“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,” said study author Brent McBride, director of the university’s Child Development Laboratory. “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.”