Extra pounds in early childhood harder to shed in adolescence

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If young children are showing signs of a weight problem, it s best for parents to take action sooner rather than later, according to a new study. Published online yesterday in the journal Pediatrics, the latest research suggests that weight gained early in childhood will be much harder to lose by the teenage years. In fact, the study found that overweight teenagers, while consuming more calories on average in early childhood, take in fewer daily calories than their average-weight counterparts.

For the study, a team led by Dr. Cockrell Skinner from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at the total number of calories consumed daily, based on a detailed, two-day food questionnaire answered by over 12,000 children as part of the CDC s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2001 to 2008. The research team also measured the children s height and weight to calculate body mass index (BMI), which was used to classify the children as either healthy weight, overweight, obese, or very obese.

Among young children ages three to eight, the findings appear intuitive: Those who were overweight or obese generally ate more calories daily than their healthy-weight counterparts. However, among children aged nine to 17, the results were a bit more counter-intuitive: Children with higher BMIs actually ate less than their peers. For instance, very obese 12- to 14-year-old girls ate an average of 300 fewer calories per day than did obese girls, and obese girls consumed 110 fewer calories a day than did healthy-weight girls. The same eating patterns were seen in boys.

According to Dr. Skinner, the results should give some parents food for thought. The body is a complex system, she says, and once a person is overweight, the body tends to want to stay that way. The findings highlight the need to prevent obesity early in life.

The researchers also stress that weight-loss efforts in older children and teens should focus more on physical activity and exercise and less on caloric restrictions. ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava agrees. Indeed, pediatric experts do not advise severe calorie restrictions in children, because they might interfere with normal growth and development," she says. "Balancing physical exercise with a healthful diet is key to a healthful lifestyle.

ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom believes that the results of this study reflect not only the need for physical exercise among adolescents, but also fundamental aspects of the physiology of obesity. It is well known that obesity triggers biochemical changes in the body that control the way calories are managed, he says. This study demonstrates at least one reason that it s so hard to lose weight, as well as the importance of not putting on extra pounds in the first place.