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Research continues to shed new light on childhood obesity, its consequences, and how best to prevent it. The latest findings underscore the importance of parental influence.

For example, pediatrics researchers at the University at Buffalo (UB) have made this correlation: preschoolers whose parents have rules about what they can and cannot eat don't seem to have a problem with obesity.

“Parents can make a difference here by training young children to self-regulate and also by setting food rules in the home,” says Xiaozhong Wen, senior author on the research. “We found that the combination of parental rules and young children’s ability to self-regulate their behaviors works best in teaching young children to eat healthy.”

The ability to self-regulate appears to be the wild card here. The researchers noticed that some children whose parents did not enforce strict food rules still managed to have healthy weights. The researchers noticed that these kids also seemed to be better able to control their emotions, which they say may be a controlling factor in food consumption.

Hard to change after fifth grade

It's important for preschoolers to maintain a healthy weight because researchers in Boston have found that if they are overweight or obese by fifth grade they have a high risk of becoming or remaining obese in their teen years.

The collaborative study by several universities highlights several risk factors, including too much screen time, having a parent who is obese, living in a lower education household and having a negative body image.

"We know from prior studies that obesity in children is correlated with their likelihood of being obese when they are older," said study lead author Dr. Mark Schuster, chief of General Pediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital and a Harvard professor. "But the pattern of change over time, of entry to and exit from obesity, hasn't generally been studied."

Overcoming the odds

While it is important to intervene with young children before they become overweight, Schuster says it is also important not to give up on kids who have become obese by fifth grade or later. While the odds may be against them, several interventions can help these kids.

"We as clinicians need to do more to educate families and encourage them to have healthier foods at home and especially when they eat outside the home,” Schuster said. “We also need to encourage them to increase exercise and reduce screen time."

Schools can play a role as well, such as improving school meals, removing sugar sweetened beverages and strengthening or restoring physical education programs. While there is hope, the present numbers are not encouraging.

The researchers found 65% of obese fifth-graders remained obese in tenth grade; 23% were no longer obese but were still overweight. Only 12% became normal weight.

On the other side of the coin, 87% of the children who were normal weight in fifth grade were still normal weight in 10th grade.

Helping or hurting?

Previous studies have suggested teens who are obese are almost certain to be obese as adults, leading to serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Besides the health consequences, many of these adults spend millions of dollars on weight loss programs, drugs and even surgery.

A study by researchers at 3 universities suggests some of these obesity remedies are actually contributing to the problem.

"Weight management remedies that promise to reduce the risks of being overweight may undermine consumer motivation to engage in health-supportive behaviors," write authors Lisa E. Bolton of Penn State, Amit Bhattacharjee of Dartmouth, and Americus Reed, II of Penn. "Put simply, why put effort into living a healthy lifestyle when a weight management remedy can take care of the problem?"

The study warned that the very people who need to reduce weight the most and are desperately reaching for weight loss pills are unfortunately the ones most likely to then dangerously increase their consumption of unhealthy foods.

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