One way to stop the obesity epidemic from further penetrating the lives of Americans and people worldwide is to reach children early, before bad habits are formed. Sara Benjamin Neelon, a licensed nutritionist, argues that obesity prevention begins at birth—or sooner— and requires a multi-pronged approach.
In the US, 10 percent of children up to age two and 20 percent of children ages two through five are overweight or obese – twice the rate of the 1980s. The problem is worse in North Carolina, where a third of the children under age five are overweight or obese. These children are at a higher risk of developing diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and could lead to other problems like depression or bullying at school.
“Excess weight gain in infancy puts children at risk for obesity and other health problems later in childhood,” said Neelon, assistant professor of community and family medicine and global health. “If we focus our efforts in the early years, we can help prevent obesity later in childhood. Targeting multiple caregivers, such as parents, grandparents and child care providers, helps ensure that children receive consistent messages about living a healthy lifestyle.”
An ideal setting to promote healthy eating and physical activity is at child care and preschool, where children consume a large percentage of their daily calories. Neelon’s research shows North Carolina preschoolers do not eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. She has also studied government-sponsored child care centers in Mexico, where young children are served high-calorie foods, sugar-sweetened beverages and insufficient whole grains.
Addressing the need for healthier diets, Neelon launched a farm-to-preschool gardening program in two North Carolina counties, where preschool children are learning to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Neelon hopes to reach more children with a statewide launch of this innovative program next year.
With new research and effective interventions, today’s youth will alter the course of an otherwise swelling global obesity epidemic.