PhotoMost people think they know what causes kids to be overweight. They'll often name over-eating, fast food and lack of exercise as the primary villains.

But a new study from the University of Illinois, published in Childhood Obesity, looked at 22 variables and found three that emerged as the strongest predictors:

  1. inadequate sleep,
  2. a parental BMI that classifies the mom or dad as overweight or obese, and
  3. parental restriction of a child's eating in order to control his weight.

"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 Brent McBride, a U of I professor of human development and 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." 

The researchers reached their conclusions after compiling the results from an extensive survey distributed to 329 parent-child dyads recruited from child-care programs in east-central Illinois.

The survey yielded wide-ranging information on demographics, health histories of both child and parent, and pertinent feeding practices. Research assistants also did home visits with each participant, checking height and weight and taking further information about the parents' history. The data was then subjected to statistical analysis.

What to do

As a result of that analysis, McBride and U of I nutritional sciences graduate student Dipti A. Dev offer some recommendations for families.

Parents should recognize that their food preferences are being passed along to their children and that these tastes are established in the preschool years, Dev said.

"If you, as an adult, live in a food environment that allows you to maintain an elevated weight, remember that your child lives in that environment too. Similarly, if you are a sedentary adult, you may be passing on a preference for television watching and computer games instead of playing chasing games with your preschooler or playing in the park," she added.

Consider too that restricting your children's access to certain foods will only make them want those foods more, she said.

"If kids have never had a chance to eat potato chips regularly, they may overeat them when the food appears at a friend's picnic," McBride said.

Instead, work on changing the food environment in your home so that a wide variety of healthy choices such as fruits and vegetables are available while unhealthy options are not, he added.

"And remember that it takes a certain number of exposures to a food before a child will try it, let alone like it, so you have to offer it to them over and over and over again. And they have to see you eat it over and over," McBride noted.

Don't use food to comfort your children when they are hurt or disappointed, do allow your preschoolers to select their foods as bowls are passed at family-style meals (no pre-plating at the counter — it discourages self-regulation), and encourage all your children to be thoughtful about what they are eating, the researcher said.


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