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Many Child Obesity Studies, Few Practical Answers

We are lucky enough to live in an age of scientific parenting, which allows us to make choices based on fact and data. Except when it leads to utter paralysis and confusion.
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We are lucky enough to live in an age of scientific parenting -- where all our questions are being examined (sometimes to the point of picayune absurdity) by some researcher somewhere. That leads us to choices based on fact and data. Except when it leads to utter paralysis and confusion.

I understand that science is incremental, and that no one study is going to solve everything. But there are days -- like today, which I spent reading through a series of articles in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine which used geographic mapping to measure how the causes of obesity vary from one location to another -- when I am at a loss as to what practical use a parent can make of the growing pile of data.

Take this latest data. I added it to the growing pile of childhood obesity studies on my desk, then read through the entire stack in search of actionable tips for parents. Here's what I found:

1. Make sure your kids are popular.

Let's start with the video game experiment. Called Cyberball, this game looks like a player is interacting with others on the Internet, but really the actions of those "others" are really preprogrammed by the researchers. In all the games a virtual ball is thrown around between the participants. Sometimes the child being studied is ostracized by the rest of the group (i.e., no one throws her the ball) and sometimes she isn't.

In an article earlier this year in the journal Pediatrics, researchers describe what happens next, when the 19 children were sent to a nearby gymnasium for 30 minutes. Those who'd been ostracized tended toward the more sedentary games while those who had not chose the more active ones. Since lack of physical activity is linked to obesity, it would follow that children who are ostracized by their peers are more at risk.

2. Move.

The Preventive Medicine articles reveal such nuggets as the fact that rural teens get most of the one-hour of recommended daily exercise at school, while suburban and urban teens got it from getting themselves from place to place. It turns out that, of the three groups, urban teens get the most exercise. They also eat the least fast food. Yes, there are more fast food choices in cities, but somehow that decreased the liklihood that teens who live there will eat it compared with their rural counterparts who had fewer fast food options and chose them more frequently.

3. Clean out your silverware drawer.

An article in the British Medical Journal in February British Medical Journal Open suggests you stop spoon-feeding a child who is just starting on solids. No, that is not a metaphor: They mean real spoons. A comparison of children who were spoon-fed and those who put their food in their mouths themselves found that a greater percentage of the former were obese when they reached second grade, leading to the question of whether parents are unintentionally "force-feeding" their children every time they play the "airplane into the hangar" game.

But buried in the report is what probably should have been the headline: that most of the children in the study were of a healthy weight, no matter how their parents fed them as babies. You might want to cling to that because now we get to the studies that say that child obesity is mostly your fault.

4. Be a better parent.

The NYU Langone Medical Center has released data showing that when low-income, minority parents participate in parenting classes they are less likely to have children who are obese by the second grade. Those classes didn't focus directly on nutrition or exercise, but rather on nurturing and stress reduction. So chill out, damn it -- and your child will lose weight.

5. Be a better, THINNER, parent.

Yes, it would help, frankly, if you would lose a few pounds, too. In March, the journal Obesity released a study that found that the greatest contributor to a child's weight loss success is his parents. A reduction in a parent's BMI was more influential, the researchers concluded, than other factors such as parenting style or the home food environment.

Which may or may not contradict the studies that stress parenting classes and finger foods.

Chew on that for awhile.