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Aug 12, 2013

Caloric Intake of Obese Children is Underestimated

Study uses model to show obese children consume significantly more calories each day than healthy children.

There’s no question that more children are overweight and obese than ever before. Obesity rates have tripled in the last 30 years and it’s estimated that two-thirds of children are now overweight or obese. Although many efforts have been taken to help children achieve healthier weights, we haven’t made much headway in reversing recent trends. Why? According to a recent study, obese children and their parents may not realize just how unhealthy their diets are.

Published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, this study used a mathematical model to estimate how many calories it takes for a growing child to become obese. While many self-reported studies show that healthy and obese children consume a similar amount of calories, this model found that it actually takes significantly more calories for obese children to gain weight. In fact, researchers estimated that to become obese between the ages of 5 and 11 years old, boys would need to consume 750-1100 more calories a day compared to healthy weight boys, depending on their exact age. Similarly, girls would need to consume 850-1300 more calories a day compared to healthy weight girls, depending on age.

Researchers also found that it’s easier for overweight boys to achieve a healthy weight after hitting puberty than girls. During puberty, overweight boys can grow so much that they may become a healthy weight without losing any weight at all. Overweight girls, on the other hand, are less likely to achieve a healthy weight following puberty, unless they actually take steps to lose weight.

So what lessons can we take away from this study? First, if there is such a vast difference in caloric intake between healthy and obese children, it’s likely that obese children (and their parents) significantly underreport their food intake and portion sizes. Experts suggest that strategies should be developed to help educate obese children and their parents on exactly what a “healthy” diet is and how to achieve it. The second lesson is that efforts to combat childhood obesity may need to be tailored for girls vs. boys, if boys are in fact more likely to “outgrow” obesity than girls during puberty. By addressing these factors that may be driving the childhood obesity epidemic, we will have a much better chance of reversing trends and helping children achieve healthier weights.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is a healthy weight?

  • A few important tools can be used to determine if an individual is underweight, normal weight or overweight. The easiest tool is a Body Mass Index, which is calculated using height and weight to estimate levels of body fat. However, Body Mass Index is not always accurate, particularly among individuals with extremely high or low amounts of muscle. In these cases, measuring waist circumference is helpful in assessing weight, as a waist circumference greater than 35 inches for a woman or 40 inches for a man is considered unhealthy.
  • How important is maintaining a healthy weight?

  • Overweight and obesity greatly increase risk for diabetes, heart disease and a number of cancers — all of which can be life threatening. Therefore, it is important to take action toward maintaining a healthy weight, as losing just 5-10% of your weight can help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce risk for heart disease.


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