Symposium on pediatric obesity prevention launches CNR Center for Weight and Health

February 02, 2000
Breakthroughs in nutritional genomics and behavioral research on human dietary needs and habits--not to mention the explosion of fitness programs and purported weight-loss drugs--have failed to reduce the nation's waistline. Childhood obesity, in particular, has risen sharply in the past decade and is now classified as an epidemic by the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

To address this conundrum, the College's new Center for Weight and Health convened "Pediatric Obesity in the 21st Century: A Research Symposium on Prevention." The October 27 symposium was the inaugural event of the center, formerly the Center for Hunger and Obesity, and attracted more than 100 researchers and representatives from academia, county, state and federal government agencies and nongovernmental and community-based organizations working with youth.

The symposium's goal mirrored that of the center: to pursue interdisciplinary, collaborative approaches in addressing the growing problems of poor nutrition and dietary habits at the state and national levels. Spearheading the symposium were the center's codirectors: Sharon Fleming, professor and associate dean for research, and Cooperative Extension specialists Joanne Ikeda and Patricia Crawford.

After introductory remarks from Fleming, speakers addressed new discoveries in the biological, behavioral, environmental and cultural components of pediatric obesity. Jeffrey Friedman, M.D., a geneticist at Rockefeller University, reviewed recent findings on genetic factors in obesity, a condition now believed to be up to 88 percent heritable in humans. He described the roles of the hypothalamus and leptin, a hormone that has been shown to be instrumental in weight regulation. Obese people (those with a body-mass index above the 95th percentile for their gender and age group) have higher blood leptin levels than others, he noted, and when they diet, the resulting drop in blood leptin levels may make it particularly difficult for them to lose weight.

"The importance of these biological factors cannot be overestimated in human obesity," Friedman said, but added that "they tell only part of the story."

Penn State Professor Leann Birch addressed the critical role of parents' behaviors and attitudes, as well as food preparation practices, in shaping children's diets. She has found that children can learn to self- regulate their eating habits if given alternative food choices; in particular, children given smaller food portions eat less.

Center Codirector Crawford noted that pediatric obesity rates have risen rapidly over the past decade in California and nationally. For reasons that are not clear, the rates are rising fastest among low-income ethnic minorities, including African American, Native American and Hispanic children. Pat Lyons, an Oakland-based registered nurse and consultant, screened a video in which teen-age girls discuss diet and body image. She highlighted the mixed messages girls receive in the media ("eat fat, look thin") and the dangers of size discrimination in reducing girls' self-esteem. Others stressed the need for children to be more physically active and spend less time in front of the television--currently averaging four hours a day. Childhood physical activity expert James Sallis of San Diego State University described his intervention studies in schools and other "real- world" settings to increase physical activity. Echoing a recurrent theme, he said, "Though our understanding of the problem of childhood obesity is better, our situation is worse."

To address this dilemma, attendees participated in afternoon brainstorming sessions. They identified many culprits contributing to pediatric obesity, including the exploding fast-food market and its commercialization, reduced funding for public-school physical education and after-school programs and larger food portions. They also suggested potential allies in future prevention efforts: university research groups, fast- food chains, policy makers, the news media, HMOs and other medical service providers and athletic, philanthropic, parent-teacher and religious organizations. They called for more and better after-school programs incorporating physical activity and market research on how to better promote healthy food to children.

Many noted the insufficient funds available for prevention studies. Such funding will remain elusive unless the public better understands the extent of pediatric obesity, said Laura Brainin-Rodriguez of the Child Health and Disability Prevention Program of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "A key obstacle will be getting local residents to 'take ownership' of the childhood obesity crisis," she said. "For example, we must make a stronger commitment to increase funding for public parks and their facilities and for after-school programs. We are still struggling with the issue of political will."

The symposium was cosponsored by the International Life Sciences Institute, Kellogg Corporation and USDA Team Nutrition.