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Duke study: Overweight moms can help preschoolers stay slim

Overweight moms who adopt better nutrition and exercise routines can instill similar habits in preschoolers, lowering the risk of obesity and giving their children a better shot at becoming healthy adults, according to researchers at Duke University Medical Center.

Limiting access to sugar-sweetened drinks and offering family-style, sit-down meals are among habits that discourage excessive weight gain in children ages 2 through 5, said Truls Ostbye, professor of community and family medicine at Duke.

“Another one is role modeling,” Ostbye said. “Eating when you are bored or angry and eating between meals are bad food habits that children may observe and imitate.”

A research study published last month in the online International Journal of Obesity looked at how parenting styles and other aspects of the home environment shaped the dietary and physical activity levels of 190 preschoolers. The children in the study all had overweight or obese mothers as their primary caregivers, Ostbye said.

Genetics vs. behaviors

“There’s no denying that some people are more prone to obesity than others,” the researchers wrote. “But the fact that there has been such an increase in obesity rates over the last decade and a half tells us it cannot be primarily due to genetic factors. The gene pool changes over thousands of years, not decades.”

The mothers were asked to record their families’ policies regarding food, such as when and how often snack foods were allowed and whether their children had regular opportunities for outdoor play or other vigorous activities.

Children from families that followed healthy habits during the study period were significantly less likely to eat junk food and more likely to consume more nutritious food, Ostbye said.

‘Create healthy citizens’

Children whose mothers led a more active lifestyle also exercised more, but that link was not as strong as the healthy foods connection.

“That may be because children of this age are naturally very active anyway, and while it may not matter as much for them now, it could later,” Ostbye added.

Ostbye considers the home a “microenvironment,” where habits such as hours in front of the television set or easy access to calorie-laden sodas can have a long-term impact on small children.

“We can create healthy citizens – or we can create unhealthy citizens if our role modeling is bad and we give children free access to unhealthy foods,” he said.

The researchers studied children ages 2 to 5 because they are still developing their preferences and are receptive to change. “They’re becoming individuals, and they are creating likes and dislikes,” Ostbye said. “It’s a teachable moment in a sense. A formative age in the life of a child.”

Once they’ve reached elementary-age, children’s habits tend to be less malleable, he added.

Encouraging young children to develop healthy lifestyle habits is of particular importance in North Carolina, where the rate of childhood obesity is fifth-highest in the country, said Jennifer MacDougall, a project manager with the Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.C. Foundation.

Nearly a third of the state’s preschoolers are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight based on the height-to-weight measurement known as a body-mass index or BMI. Studies have shown that overweight children have increased chances of becoming obese adults. Children are considered overweight when their BMI reaches 85 percent of the overall average for their age.

Teaching the youngest

The N.C. Partnership for Children along with the BCBSNC Foundation have been working together for the past three years to encourage healthier lifestyles for children through a program called Shape NC.

Many of Shape NC’s recommendations echo findings of the Duke study, such as limiting junk food, encouraging children to eat only when they are hungry, and allowing plenty of time for physical activities.

Not all children are home with their parents on a daily basis, so the foundation has launched a special outreach to child care centers in the state.

“We want to make sure children have access to healthy food and to places and spaces for active play and physical activity,” MacDougall said. “The youngest ages are incredibly critical.”

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