Children who are obese at eight find it harder to lose weight when they are teenagers despite eating less than slim peersPrevention best way to control epidemic, says experts
06:59 GMT, 11 September 2012
Children who are obese by the age of eight will find it much harder to lose weight than their peers, a study has found.
Researchers found that those who became overweight as young children actually ate fewer calories in their teenage years than their slim peers.
But despite eating less they were unable to shift the weight they had put on as young children.
This suggests that the die is cast for obesity at a young age and that prevention is the best way to control the epidemic, the experts said
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A third of 11-year-olds in England and Wales are now overweight or obese, double the number in the 1990s.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina say the findings also explains why dieting tends not to work for overweight teenagers and suggest more exercise could help them lose weight.
They examined the diet and weight of 12,600 American children aged between one and 17 over several years.
Obese and overweight girls over the age of seven and boys over the age of 10 were found to consume less than children of a healthy weight.
Lead author Dr Asheley (CORR) Cockrell Skinner, an assistant professor of paediatrics said once a child had become obese it seemed to be ‘self-perpetuating’.
Normal weight children probably expend more energy running around, while overweight children will be significantly less active.
She said: ‘So, for many children, obesity may begin by eating more in early childhood. Then as they get older, they continue to be obese without eating any more than their healthy weight peers.
‘One reason this makes sense is because we know overweight children are less active than healthy weight kids, therefore requiring fewer calories to maintain energy balance.
Obese: Overweight children can find it difficult to change their diets, and thus energy intake significantly
‘Additionally, this is in line with other research that obesity is not a simple matter of overweight people eating more — the body is complex in how it reacts to amount of food eaten and amount of activity.’
The authors, writing in the journal Pediatrics, say it is vital for parents to control portion sizes, choose healthy food and not over-feed children at a young age.
Dr Skinner added that if older children cut their calorie intake they will lose weight – but they have to eat less than their slim friends which can be very difficult.
She said: ‘Overweight children may find it very difficult to change their diets, and thus energy intake significantly.
‘It makes sense for early childhood interventions to focus specifically on caloric intake, while for those in later childhood or adolescence the focus should instead be on increasing physical activity.’
Children reported what they were eating to researchers, who asked both parents and children, and used different plates to estimate portion sizes.
Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum said medics have known for some time that increased energy intake in early childhood is ‘overwhelmingly responsible’ for the obesity epidemic.
He said: ‘Girls put on some 90 per cent of their body fat by the the age of five and boys run them a close second with 70 per cent by the same age.
‘The research also confirms that although many children thereafter appear to be moderating their calorie intake, the die for many others has been cast in their preschool years.
‘We must always remember that some 25 per cent are obese or overweight by primary school and the continuous message for every parent is that they should try their utmost to check what their toddlers are putting away – not just the variety of food but the super-sized portions that it is served in.’