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Preventing Childhood Obesity

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More

It’s hard to avoid the topic these days. Turn on any news program, go to the doctor’s office or read a magazine and in all likelihood the topic of America’s obesity epidemic will emerge.

The statistics are alarming. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) the prevalence of obesity in children and adolescents has tripled since 1980.

The repercussions of this extra weight on our children’s lives are vast. Physical problems resulting from childhood obesity, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, breathing problems, fatty liver disease and type-2 diabetes are well documented.

Obesity is now the second leading cause of death in the U.S. and is expected to become the leading cause, says American Psychological Association President, Suzanne Bennett Johnson, PhD.

In fact, obesity is harmful not only to the body, but also to the brain. According to a study reported on in Pediatrics, adolescents with metabolic syndrome, a condition linked to increases in obesity, showed significantly lower arithmetic, spelling, attention, and mental flexibility and a trend for lower overall intelligence. This study showed brain changes for these adolescents that suggest lower academic and professional potential for these adolescents.

Causes of Childhood Obesity

The causes of childhood obesity are complex. Children’s families, neighborhoods, schools, communities and society at large all play a role in the development of childhood obesity.

Genetic and early childhood experiences are of the greatest importance in understanding the development of overweight children, according to George Bray in “Obesity in Childhood and Adolescence.” He offers this analogy to help understand the role genes play in obesity: “genes load the gun, and a permissive or toxic environment pulls the trigger.”

This ‘toxic’ environment is one in which children take in more and more calories. For example children may be eating more due to the increasing availability of energy-dense, high-calorie foods and drinks through schools and changes in the family that may also have increased demand for food away from home or high calorie pre-prepared foods, according to a report in The Future of Children.

This increase in caloric intake along with a host of factors that contribute to reductions in activity levels for children means more energy in and less out. Children are now less likely to walk to school than in the past, they travel in cars more and spend more time in front of TV and computers than they did in the 1970’s.

Making Change

There is no one specific cause of childhood obesity. But in an effort to reverse the epidemic, behavioral psychologists are targeting families, schools and children’s communities for change.

In more than a dozen studies over the course of 30 years, lifestyle-based interventions have lead to meaningful long-term weight loss, according to Leonard Epstein, PhD, chief of the Division of Behavioral Medicine at the University of Buffalo (Monitor on Psychology).

But how to make those changes aren’t always intuitive, Epstein reports. Most interventions focus on what an individual shouldn’t eat. However, in his research, Epstein has found that focus on increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables is a much more effective strategy.

Focus on an individual and a family is simply not enough, according to Kelly Brownell, PhD. recipient of two APA awards for his work battling obesity. This is a strategy we’ve tried for over 30 years, he says, “to halt the obesity crisis we must think bigger.”

We must change the environment in which we live, according to Brownell. These changes can include such things as healthier school lunches, tackling the images of sugary and fatty foods used to market foods to kids and adjusting the prices of foods, for example by taxing sugar sweetened drinks, so that healthier foods are lower in cost than unhealthy foods.

Not everyone agrees with all the interventions currently in motion that are attempts to change our food environment. And huge challenges remain. But psychology, as a science of behavior change, has much to offer in expertise as we move forward.

Keep Reading By Author Christy Matta, M.A.
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