Why Is Childhood Obesity So Prevalent, and What Can We Do to Address It?

Teresa Quattrin, Pediatric Department Chair.

Teresa Quattrin, MD, A. Conger Goodyear Professor and Chair of Pediatrics at UB and pediatrician-in-chief of the Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes at Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.

Published August 11, 2010 This content is archived.

In August 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2009, no state had met a target of reducing obesity prevalence among adults to 15 percent. Why is obesity so prevalent in America? And what can we do to combat the problem?

Teresa Quattrin, MD, A. Conger Goodyear Professor and Chair of Pediatrics at UB—who is leading a $2.5 million study to test an innovative program for preventing and treating obesity in children aged 2 to 5—offers her expert opinion.

Why have obesity rates increased so much over the past several decades?

Quattrin: Changes in diet and activity levels have contributed to obesity. People are eating more, and eating less healthy food high in calories. In our research, we looked at the food intake of children 2 to 5 years old, and 7 out of 10 were consuming significantly more calories than the recommended 1,200 per day. There are children who eat a whole carton of strawberries, and their parents think that’s OK. But it is not. Too much healthy food can contribute to the problem, too. Extra calories, along with low physical activity, lead to obesity, especially in people with a predisposition to developing the disease, and certainly in kids whose parents are obese.

What health problems can childhood obesity cause?

Quattrin: Knee problems, back problems, high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems can all result from obesity. Children who are overweight tend to have poor self esteem and make fewer friends. It’s important to remember that health problems due to obesity can begin early in life. Type 2 diabetes used to be called adult onset diabetes, but now many teenagers and children—as young as 8 years old—have the disease.

Are children who are obese more likely to become adults who are obese?

Quattrin: Yes. Studies have shown that even 2- to 5-year-old children who are obese have as high as an 80 percent chance of suffering from obesity in adulthood if their parents are overweight. Once the body is used to eating a certain amount of food, the stomach no longer sends the proper signals to the brain to say that you’re full. So when you try to change habits, it’s a struggle.

What are some simple steps children and families can take to prevent obesity?

Quattrin: Parents should educate themselves by finding out their children’s body mass index, and their own. Young children who don’t look overweight may still be obese. Parents also need to be good role models. If the home environment is such that the refrigerator and pantry are full of junk food instead of fruits and vegetables, the child grows up feeling that’s the way he or she should eat. Being active is also important. Park a little further away from the supermarket. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Walk to the store or a friend’s house. These are simple steps that can ameliorate and prevent problems.