Reversing a national health trend

Childhood obesity topic of lecture

A pediatric researcher whose life work involves reducing obesity in children will be the keynote speaker at the second annual Gerry Sue and Norman J. Arnold Childhood Obesity Lecture. 

Brian Saelens, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington and principal investigator at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, will talk about effective methods of reversing a problem that’s become a national epidemic. 

The lecture, which is free and open to the public, will be held at 3:45 p.m., Thursday (Oct. 12) at the USC Alumni Center, 900 Senate St.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of children who are obese has more than tripled since the 1970s. One in five children between the ages of 6 and 19 are classified as obese because they are in the 95th percentile of the body mass index or BMI.

Many health conditions associated with childhood obesity including developing type-2 diabetes and asthma, and having bone and joint problems, have the potential to become lifelong ailments. For that reason, preventing childhood obesity is one of the goals of the Gerry Sue and Norman J. Arnold Institute on Aging.

The institute, created in 2015, is dedicated to expanding the body of knowledge on physical activity and its many benefits to children’s health.

Saelens’ research focuses on how a child’s environment influences eating and exercising habits. He’s currently working to find ways to help families maintain a healthy weight. The project is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

We asked Saelens to give us a preview of his talk.  

We have the heaviest generation of kids in history. How did we get to this point? 

“It is likely a combination of easier access and availability of highly palatable, high-calorie foods and decreasing need to be active in our daily lives. Given the disproportional rates of childhood (and adult) obesity in the U.S. by income and race/ethnicity, socioeconomic and demographic factors are also important to consider.”

What’s the best way to prevent childhood obesity?

“To create a combination of policies, systems and environments in which all children live, learn and play that help them and their caregivers have easier access and availability of healthier food and activity choices.”

How much of a factor do genes play in the problem?

“For any individual child, there are dispositions regarding weight (particularly fat distribution), height and other aspects of growth, but we don’t think that overweight or obesity are fully or even mostly determined.”

Chubby babies are cute — and seem to be the norm. But at what age should parents begin to worry about the weight of their child? 

“We expect and want children to put on fat mass during infancy, as this is related to growth and brain development. There are individual exceptions, but we generally don’t start worrying about high weight status among children until they are 3-4 years old.”

What steps can parents take to reverse the obesity of their child? 

“The recently updated intervention recommendations for children 6+ years with obesity is to engage with their caregivers/family in comprehensive, intensive, family-based weight management. I am excited to present on some of our work in this area of pediatric weight management intervention.”

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