Despite the launch of many programs and initiatives designed to get kids in the US to eat healthier, like the elimination of junk food from school vending machines, child obesity rates keep rising and increased more rapidly during the pandemic.
So, the question remains: what are these schemes missing?
It turns out that successfully lowering a child’s body mass index (BMI) takes more than just healthy foods and physical activity (though both factors are important). According to child obesity researchers with specializations in human development and family science, acceptance from family and friends is critical to slowing weight gain in children with obesity.
To determine this, professors from the Human Development and Family Science department at Oklahoma State University Amanda Harrist and Laura Hubbs-Tait followed nearly 1,200 children in first through fourth grades in rural Oklahoma in order to examine the lives of kids who were overweight or obese.
They devised intervention programs that allowed them to compare the typical approach of focusing on food and exercise to lower weight with an approach that focuses more so on the social and emotional aspects of the children’s lives.
Family and peer acceptance
The randomized trial involved more than 500 first graders from 29 Oklahoma schools who were at-risk for obesity, which means that their BMI was above the 75th percentile. The students were then assigned to either a control group or a group that received a combination of three interventions. These interventions focused on family lifestyle, family dynamics, and the child’s peer group.
Family lifestyle intervention
This intervention zoned in on healthy food and physical activity, with children learning how to guide their food selections through a color-coded food reference guide. Parents and guardians were required to track the food their children consumed as well as their engagement in physical activities.
Another factor was learning how to avoid conflict over food, which may involve arguing about how much the child is eating, or whether the child deserves dessert based on everything else they ate during the meal.
Family dynamics intervention
This method involved refining parenting skills and healthy emotion management, as children’s ability to regulate emotions is related to how much they engage in emotional eating. Teaching children how to effectively manage their feelings may reduce their tendency to eat when stressed or upset.
Children were taught how to manage negative emotions, express themselves well, and value their uniqueness, while parents were taught to value their children’s emotions, comfort and understand their children, support children’s problem-solving, and accept their children as they are.
Peer group intervention
The duo’s research indicated that the more children weigh, the more likely their peers are to dislike them, but if children are taught to be accepting of each other, which is the focus of this intervention, then there is a decrease in the rejection that happens within the classroom.
Effect on obesity
The children’s heights and weights were measured at the start of first grade, and then after the intervention in their first, second, third, and fourth grades. Children with obesity who received all three interventions showed a significant decrease in BMI gains in comparison to the control group.
Continued analysis shows that for children who were severely obese, the peer group intervention was particularly significant.
According to the results of this study, in order to reduce child obesity, we need to take on a holistic approach that covers emotional and mental well-being as well as social acceptance on top of healthy eating and regular exercise.
Source study: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health—The families and schools for health project: A longitudinal cluster randomized controlled trial targeting children with overweight and obesity