TTU nutrition professor says small changes can mean big results for overweight children

Many parents might think that healthy eating is just a ‘gut reaction’ for children, but as a professor of food and nutrition in Tennessee Tech University’s School of Human Ecology, Cathy Cunningham knows better.

She says a person’s food preferences and eating habits are behaviors learned at an early age from a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, socio-cultural, environmental and other factors.

“What that means is that — when it comes to the foods you choose to put on your plate and in your mouth — you are what you inherit,” Cunningham said. “The family’s impact on a child’s food choices is enormous.”

With the National Center for Health Statistics estimating in 2004 that 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2-19 were overweight, the number of overweight children in our country has nearly tripled in the last 20 years.

According to a recent report by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, those adolescents who are overweight have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults, and if one or more of those children’s parents is overweight, that likelihood increases to 80 percent.

“That statistic illustrates how much of this trend is influenced by lifestyle choices and cultural factors,” Cunningham said. “While children may inherit the general build of their bodies from one parent or the other, they don’t inherit specific weights. That’s something that can be altered.”

Reversing that trend, however, will likely require the creative application of a combination of those same factors that determine children’s food preferences.

“This is a social phenomenon that can’t be blamed on a single cause,” Cunningham said.

“It’s not just because the popularity of video games is keeping kids from playing outside more or because children’s television programming features lots of commercials for low-nutrient foods with high sugar or fat contents — although each family’s reaction to those factors certainly contributes to the situation,” she continued.

Because the phenomenon can’t be traced to a single cause, however, it likewise can’t be corrected with a single measure, Cunningham added — but providing a school lunch program that supplies healthy alternatives for students of all ages and nutrition information they can share with family could be a good start.

Karen Dalton, the nutrition director for Putnam County schools, agrees.

In fact, lunches for Putnam County K-4 students since January have featured the “STARS Selection Program,” which promotes the healthiest — or ‘yummiest’ — lunch choices by displaying a bright yellow, attention-grabbing star over them.

“It’s a subtle way to get kids to try foods they might not otherwise have considered, and I’ve already had a number of parents make positive comments about it,” she said. “They’ll tell me their children never liked a certain food, like peaches or broccoli, until it was a featured item in the program.”

At the start of the current academic year, school nutrition managers also provided lists of healthy snack selections to Putnam County parents who were registering their children for kindergarten.

And Dalton says wellness tips are always included along with the school menus submitted for publication in the local newspaper each week.

“We can provide a healthy selection of foods to Putnam County students from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. — but that’s only a fraction of their day,” Dalton said. “We hope some of our efforts can also serve as examples to better help parents teach healthy food choices to their children.”

Julie Yother, a TTU business graduate with two daughters ages 8 and 14, says one way she helps her children make healthy food choices is to consider no food completely off-limits, but to promote the beneficial qualities of other foods.

“I don’t tell them that too many cookies or too much cake is bad for them. Instead, I tell them that other foods will better help them grow because they provide nutrients that will give them stronger bones and teeth or healthier immune systems or thicker hair,” she said.

While the measures taken on a systematic basis by Dalton and an individual basis by Yother are all subtle ways of altering children’s food choices, Cunningham says subtlety just might be best.

“The number of overweight kids in our country has reached epidemic proportions, but the most appropriate nutritional goal for many of those children is to maintain their current weight while growing normally in height,” she said.

Succeeding at such a goal could mean focusing on as few as three small lifestyle changes — such as switching from whole milk to skim; scheduling routine family meals; or limiting television, computer or video game time until dusk.

“It’s usually not too difficult for families to determine three, simple things they can and are willing to change for the sake of becoming a little bit healthier,” Cunningham said.

The cost of continuing unhealthy food patterns is evident with the elevated risk of health problems — including heart disease, stroke and diabetes — for children who grow into overweight adults.

What may not be as evident, Cunningham says, are the annual medical costs attributed to overweight and obesity.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the direct and indirect costs of obesity, including medical costs and lost productivity, are more than $117 billion each year, with Tennessee accounting for more than $1.84 billion of that total.

“Statistics like that make you realize quickly that it really does pay to make healthy food and lifestyle choices,” Cunningham said.