New study explains why children don’t respond to diets

A new study highlights the behavioral mechanisms that influence weight gain.  Previous research suggests rigid calorie-counting diets are often counter-productive for young children.

There are about three million new cases of childhood obesity a year in the U.S. and more times than not these children grow up to be obese adults.

The experts behind the latest study posit that dieticians have been approaching this epidemic all wrong by exclusively emphasizing nutritional knowledge. In their estimation, these are provisional fixes to a persistent problem. If children aren’t taught how to properly manage their emotions and self regulate, they will regress to bad eating habits as soon as they are permitted the agency to do so.

obesity rates in children

Knowledge and application

The CDC reports that for children and adolescents ages two to 19 years, the prevalence of obesity was 18.5% and affected about 13.7 million children and adolescents between 2015 and 2016. Obesity prevalence was 13.9% among 2- to 5-year-olds, 18.4% among 6- to 11-year-olds, and 20.6% among 12- to 19-year-olds.

The fault in traditional methods of addressing the childhood obesity crisis is in the assumption that kids eat poorly because they are ignorant of dietary rights and wrongs. That may be true in some instances, but by and large, the issue is a behavioral one.

The researches exercised this hypothesis via two groups comprised of 10 randomly assigned public schools. The teachers employed by these institutions were invited to four meetings over a four-month span,  given a booklet of nutrition information, and had access to video lessons, segmented by seven chapters: Risk factors for cardiovascular diseases in childhood, choice of healthy foods, food labeling, sodium, sugars and fats, emotional health and quality of life, physical activity and healthy practices and changes in eating habits.

Before the study was conducted, teachers were tasked with recording the children’s weight, height, degree of physical activity, and food intake. The students were then asked about the diet habits they observed in their homes. The control group schools used standard nutrition and health lessons while the intervention group did the same in addition to teaching habit change, stress management, emotional health, and the management of quality of life. Teachers were not given a strict rubric to adhere to, meaning they could implement these lessons into their syllabuses in any way they saw fit.

Although students from both groups were found to retain all the nutrition information they learned in four months, only the intervention group expressed substantial change. In this group, the number of children that adhered to the recommendation to abstain from fast-food went up by 15%, and the number of children following the recommendation to avoid sugary soft drinks increased by 20%. Moreover, the teachers from this group engaged in physical activity 28% more than they did previously.

“Children in both the intervention and control groups increased their level of health knowledge during the study. But only those in the intervention group changed their eating behaviors. This suggests that information on its own does not lead to lifestyle improvements. In our study, a program that combined information with playful activities and emotional support was beneficial for children and teachers,” wrote the study’s author Dr. Carolinne Santin Dal Ri, a pediatrician at the Institute of Cardiology of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil.

The data is set to be presented at European Society  Congress 2019 alongside the World Congress of Cardiology and was written by Dr. Carolinne Santin Dal Ri.