Inside Texas Tech: Understanding Childhood Obesity

Mar 14, 2018

Results of recent study on childhood obesity found that the disease is increasing in 2-to 5-year-old children, especially in boys. Previous reports had showed a stabilization or a decrease in childhood obesity. The recent study in the journal Pediatrics left one Texas Tech obesity researcher dispirited.

“It is a sad situation, but not at all surprising,” Dr. Nik Dhurandhar, chair of Texas Tech’s Department of Nutritional Sciences, says. “We don’t know where adult obesity is going and it shows that children are no exception. It’s in the same epidemic that is going on.”

That’s Dr. Nik Dhurandhar, the chair of Texas Tech’s Department of Nutritional Sciences who’s researched obesity for more than three decades. Obesity is defined as a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex.

The Pediatrics article showed that 13.7 percent of 814 children 2 to 5 years old were classified as having obesity for 2015-2016. In the previous two years, the percentage was 9.3 percent. In 418 boys aged 2 to 5 years old for 2015-2016, obesity rose to 14.2 percent, up from 8.5 percent in 2013-2014.

Dhurandhar says childhood obesity has a layer of complexity that’s far different than treating obesity in adults.

First, treating a child with obesity must be done in such a way as to not hamper his or her growth.

“You want to be very careful about not reducing their intake so much that the nutrition is going to get adversely affected,” he says. “This is not an issue in adults. You just have to make sure that they get adequate nutrition, but this is not a growing phase in adults.”

Secondly, children don’t necessarily comprehend information about the long-term effects of obesity, like diabetes. He says that’s too far in the future for children to grasp.

Thirdly, children’s interactions with people around them, like their parents and relatives. Though well-meaning, sometimes those people chide the child about their body weight.

Lastly, Dhurandhar says, there is the potential for eating disorders to begin. That can happen when children are too overtly concerned about weight or are driven to be concerned about their weight.

“Psychological issues are so intertwined with childhood obesity, teenage obesity…and they may not be accepted in society so that leads to other issues. So, all these things make childhood obesity, its treatment and prevention extremely difficult,” Dhurandhar says.

The best treatment, Dhurandhar says, is prevention, which has three aspects. The primary one is that if there is no weight issue, work to ensure it doesn’t become one. Second, if a child loses weight, help the child not regain it. And thirdly, wherever the child is weight-wise, don’t let him or her gain more.

“Perhaps it needs a team of healthcare providers that could include dietitians, physicians, somebody who specializes in childhood activities—such as exercise—a psychologist. You just don’t want to go give a diet and go home,” he says. “So all these things need to come together for affective treatment of childhood obesity.”

Dhurandhar has treated more than 15,000 patients for obesity. He is a staunch advocate for more research on satiety hormones. Some children continue eating even after they’ve finished a full plate of food, while others don’t.

“A lot of researcher are needed for obesity and understanding obesity in children,” he explains.