Reducing Childhood Obesity Is Attainable

Childhood obesity rate goals could be achieved with an average 64 fewer calories a day

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The U.S. government aims to reduce the childhood obesity rate from the current 16.9 percent to 14.6 percent by 2020. But what would that require? The answer might surprise you.

If American children eliminated an average, across the whole population, of just 64 extra calories a day from their intake - whether by eating less or exercising more - this goal could be achieved, according to a new study.

Without this 64-calorie reduction, however, childhood obesity will only continue to rise and likely hit 20 percent by 2020, the researchers warn.

"Find out how many calories your child should be eating daily from a doctor or dietitian."

Y. Claire Wang, MD, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, led the study that calculated how the federal government goals for child health could be attained.

Wang and colleagues gathered almost four decades of data and crunched a lot of numbers to make their calculations, and they emphasize that these calculations are an average across the U.S. population of children - not a number to be followed by every individual overweight child.

Wang's team first gathered data on the height and weight of U.S. youths aged 2 to 19 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from the years 1971 to 2008.

This information allowed them to calculate that the obesity rate in 2020 will be about 21 percent if no changes are made and current patterns in children's calorie intake continue.

They then calculated what would be necessary, based on current trends and that same data, to meet the 14.6 percent obesity goal set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' 2010 Healthy People 2020 report. The last time the childhood obesity rate was at 14.6 percent was in 2002.

The 64-calorie number is the average they came up with, but this number would vary according to each child's current weight and personal needs.

“Sixty-four calories may not sound like much individually, but it’s quite a consequential number at the population level, and children at greatest risk for obesity face an even larger barrier,” Wang said.

“Closing this gap between how many calories young people are consuming and how many they are expending will take substantial, comprehensive efforts," she said.

Those efforts begins with finding baby steps that can put the nation on track, and the authors provide some suggestions.

For one thing, kids should cut out sugary drinks. Simply replacing all sugar-sweetened drinks at school with water and avoiding these drinks outside of school would cut an average of 12 calories off U.S. children's waistlines.

Another 19 average calories would disappear with the implementation of comprehensive physical education programs every day for children from age 9 to 11.

Involving all children from kindergarten through fifth grade in after school activity programs could take off another 25 calories on average per day for U.S. kids.

While each of these activities will help individual overweight and obese children lose weight, they aren't the only things families could do to get their children to a healthy weight.

Angela Lemond, a dietitian who specializes in working with children, suggested that parents can help their children achieve or maintain a healthy weight with their cooking habits and education.

"Avoid short order cooking for your children that might seek out higher calorie foods, such as macaroni and cheese or fried chicken nuggets," Lemond said.

"Teach children that healthy foods such as whole grains, fruits, veggies, lean meats and low-fat fairy have 'super powers' that help them run faster and think smarter," she suggests. "In other words, encourage them to choose healthier foods and also make them more accessible.

Parents can also increase their children's opportunities for outside play, decrease screen time and ensure their children get sufficient sleep, Lemond said.

"Keep children in a sport year round or make them go out and play after school for at least one hour - riding bikes or jumping on the trampoline are great ideas," she said. "Enforce bed times and remove televisions from their rooms."

The amount of calorie reduction a person needs to lose weight is drawn from the "energy gap."

An "energy gap" is the difference between how many calories a person uses up through everyday functions, growth and physical activity and how much they take in through food and drinks.

Wang's team calculated the average energy gap for different ethnicities as well. The group requiring the largest overall average reduction includes black youths, who need to shave off an average 138 calories daily.

Mexican-American youths follow with an energy gap of 91 calories that needs to be closed, and white children need to close a 46-calorie gap.

Lower-income children and teens also have a wide energy gap to close than higher-income youths have.

“Reaching the 2020 goal will require significant changes to calories consumed and expended,” said C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, co-author of the study and senior scientist at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“We know that children and teens who already are overweight or obese will need larger reductions, and that preventing obesity will be more effective than treating it," Orleans said. "We must focus our attention on the policy and environmental changes likely to have early, broad and sustainable impacts.”

The study appeared online April 10 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The research was funded by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the CDC Nutrition and Obesity Policy, Research and Evaluation Network. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 16, 2012
Last Updated:
April 16, 2012