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Current obesity rates linked to dietary habits from decades ago

What consumers eat as children can predict how their diet will develop as adults

Photo (c) soupstock - Fotolia
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville decided to look at eating habits from a few decades ago to try to make sense of current trends in obesity. 

The study found that patterns from childhood could be affecting adults today, as eating poorly in childhood two to three decades ago could be the reason why many adults are currently struggling with their weight. 

“While most public health studies focus on current behaviors and diets, we took a novel approach and looked at how the diets we consumed in our childhood affect obesity levels now that we are adults,” said researcher Alex Bentley. 

How does the past affect the present?

The researchers began their study by looking at the increase in sugar consumption in the U.S. since 1970. They collected obesity data from between 1990 and 2004 and compared that with annual sugar consumption from 1970. 

“Since the 1970s, many available infant foods have been extremely high in sugar,” said researcher Hillary Fouts. “Other independent studies in medicine and nutrition have suggested that sugar consumption during pregnancy can cause an increase in fat cells in children.” 

The study found that the turn of the century was a pivotal moment in the shift of sugar consumption, as people across the United States were consuming the most sugar in 1999. The researchers explained that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) spiked in popularity after 1970. Over the course of 1999, the average consumer was ingesting around 60 pounds of HFCS per year. 

Based on these findings, the researchers believe that children who were consuming lots of sugar a few decades ago and are now currently adults have kept their eating habits from their younger years, thus contributing to today’s current obesity epidemic. 

“Our results suggest that the dietary habits learned by children 30 or 40 years ago could explain the adult obesity crisis that emerged years later,” said researcher Damian Ruck. 

Reversing the trend

While the findings show how deeply rooted the problem of obesity is in the U.S., the researchers did find some good news.

The study revealed that consumers have dramatically reduced their sugar intake since 2000, which could mean that obesity trends could be drastically different moving forward.

“If 2016 turns out to be the peak in the obesity rate, that is coincidentally one generation after the peak in excess sugar consumption,” said Bentley. 

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