Overweight and Obese Children Eat LESS Than Their Healthy Weight Peers

Posted: Thursday, March 10, 2011

 Are you surprised by that title?  According to a study presented at the 2010 Pediatric Academic Societies, it is true.  I’m not surprised.  In my practice I often see people who have good eating and exercise habits yet struggle daily with a life-long weight battle.  I also see people who have poor eating habits, lazy exercise habits, and have never had to worry about their weight.  It’s not fair.  I don’t believe it’s as simple as the “calories in – calories out” equation that we are supposed to accept as common knowledge, but this simple equation allows doctors to tell their unsuccessful weight loss patients that they must not trying hard enough.

Of course, for every “healthy-habits” overweight person I see, I see more people who are overweight due to obviously poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle.  The most disturbing however, are the overweight children and young adults.  Those children are doomed to a lifetime of a weight struggle and are likely to be afflicted at a young age with diseases that used to be reserved for older people.  Today’s children may not outlive their parents.  Of course, today’s generation of children have parents that are overweight and who are going to have shortened life spans compared to their own parents for the first time in history.

The title of this article comes from a study presented at the Pediatric Academic Society meeting, which examined the diets of 12,000 children aged 1 to 17 between 2001 and 2006.  The study found that in children under- two- years, overweight children consumed about 200 more calories a day than the normal weight children.  By age 9, the caloric intake of overweight children was 100 calories a day less than their healthy-weight counterparts.  

This trend continued into adolescence with 15- to 17- year-old overweight teens consuming 200 calories a day less than their healthy weight counterparts.  Can you imagine how discouraging this is?  These children actually are eating less, yet others assume they are eating more. Despite doing right, they still are failing.  Who would blame them for abandoning the effort?

What could explain these unexpected findings?  One theory is that children become overweight before age two and then go on to maintain their excess weight by being less physically active.  Who worries about weight in children under two?  The only weight concern for children of this young age is if they are underweight.

What factors could be contributing to excess weight in children under age two?  It might be what they are eating as infants, which comes down to formula vs. breast feeding.  A 1992 study from the journal Pediatrics, found that the weight of breast fed infants was significantly lower than the formula fed group between 6 and 18 months of age.  Weight-to-length measurements indicated that breast fed infants were leaner.  Though both groups had similar weight gains in the first 3 months, breast-fed infants gained less rapidly in the remainder of the first year.  The cumulative weight gain in the first 12 months was 1.4 lbs less in the breast-fed group.

Will formula feeding push these under- two- year-olds into the overweight category dooming them to a lifetime of being overweight?

Sleep is another factor that makes kids fat.  Of course, the more one sleeps, the less one is being active and exercising.  Right?  Wrong.  Sleep may be just as important as diet and physical activity in maintaining a healthy weight for infants and preschoolers.  

Over the past three decades, obesity rates have doubled among children age two to five, and tripled among 6- to 11-year-olds.   A study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, looked at the sleeping habits and weight of 2,000 children over a five year period.  Children who slept less than 10 hours per night were nearly twice as likely to become over weight or obese over that 5 year period.  Napping during the day did not make up for the lack of sleep at night, nor did not reduce the risk that these children would gain weight.

Why do kids who sleep less than 10 hours a night gain weight?  Again, it could be that kids who get less sleep are less inclined to be physically active during the day, or it could be hormones.  Studies found that sleep deprivation increases the release of appetite stimulating hormones. This hormonal shift also increases cravings for unhealthy foods like those high in salt, sugar and fat.  Children up to age five need at least ten hours of sleep a night. Infants and young toddlers need even more, and adults need at least eight.

Though it is obvious that what we eat has a huge impact on what we weigh, these studies indicate that we should not neglect the importance of exercise and adequate sleep.  One last thought-- how many more hours of physical activity and sleep did the average adult get before we all had a TV in our homes?

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