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 Risk Factors: Diet and Activity


Lt Col Reynolds
Like obesity in adults, childhood obesity is caused by a lack of energy balance. This means that the body is taking in too much energy from food and not using enough energy through physical activity. Dr. Bethea, can you tell us more about the affect of diet and activity on energy imbalance?

Dr. Bethea
Sure. There are a number of risk factors that can contribute to a lack of energy balance in children and teens. Diet and activity are the two most important components of energy balance when it comes to childhood obesity.

Children need healthy foods with plenty of nutrients to help their bodies grow, but much of what’s readily available is high in fat, sugar, and calories, such as fast food and prepackaged meals. Many families have busy schedules that don’t allow them time to prepare healthy meals at home, but it’s important to make healthy eating a priority.

When it comes to diet, how much a child eats is just as important as what they eat. Many restaurants and even families serve portion sizes that are much too large for a single person. Even if it’s healthy food, a child might still be eating too many calories based on their weight and activity level. One thing to keep in mind is that it can be more tempting for a child to overeat at lunchtime, snack time, or dinnertime if they aren’t eating a proper breakfast.

Physical activity is the other side of maintaining energy balance because it’s how the body uses calories. It’s recommended that children over the age of two spend at least 60 minutes each day doing a physical activity. Babies and toddlers should be active for 15 minutes every hour, or a total of three hours for every 12 waking hours, each day.

Between computers, video games, tablets, smartphones, and television, children are spending more time than ever being physically inactive. Research suggests that kids who spend more than four hours a day in front of a screen are more likely to be obese. In addition, many schools are eliminating or cutting down on physical education classes, which means children aren’t getting opportunities for physical activity during school time either.

 Risk Factors: Other


Lt Col Phillips
Along with diet and activity, there are a variety of other factors that can influence a child’s energy balance and risk for obesity. Dr. Patel, can you tell us about some of these?

Dr. Patel
You bet, Dr. Phillips. There are many environmental and economic factors that can play a role in diet and activity level. For example, many neighborhoods don’t have access to safe, affordable places for kids to play, such as parks or, in some cases, even sidewalks. Another problem is access to healthy food. Many families are unable to afford healthy foods, or the stores that sell healthy foods are simply too far away. These realities can make it difficult for lower income families to help their children maintain energy balance.

Another risk factor is genetics. Obesity tends to run in families, and part of this may be due to genetic traits that determine how the body stores and uses fat. However, genes aren’t the only things that families have in common. Shared lifestyle habits can also play an important role in a child’s balance of energy.

One last risk factor to consider is breastfeeding. Studies have shown that breastfeeding protects against childhood obesity. While many mothers start out breastfeeding, fewer and fewer babies are being exclusively breastfed at the end of six months. For working mothers, it can be especially difficult to continue breastfeeding once their maternity leave ends. It’s important to encourage and support mothers who want to breastfeed their children.