Social Networks and Environment Impact Childhood Obesity

Researchers are learning that effective strategies to reduce childhood obesity must go beyond strong nutritional policies in schools and a reduction in TV or screen time.

In fact, a new study suggests encouraging more social interaction for children and expanding their number of friendships may in itself, limit screen time.

Researchers from the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston have published eight new articles as part of a special obesity issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

The issue, titled “The Science of Childhood Obesity: An Individual to Societal Framework,” provides insights into how to solve the child obesity epidemic and close the gap in the current understanding of its causes.

“Ongoing scientific updates of our understanding of the childhood obesity epidemic are important and urgent due to the rapid increase in the prevalence of obesity in both developed and developing countries during the last 30 to 40 years, despite countless initiatives to address childhood obesity,” said Cheryl Perry, Ph.D., regional dean at University of Texas Health School of Public Health, Austin Regional Campus.

Researchers noted approximately 32 percent of children ages six to 19 are overweight or obese in the United States and these rates are even higher in some states.

For instance, watching television has typically been viewed as one of the causes of obesity in children. However, according to University of Texas Health researchers, overweight or obese children may spend more time in front of the television because of social factors and friendship dynamics that lead them to spend less time with friends.

The authors of this paper examined data from the Child Development Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which included information about the health, development and time use of 2,908 students ages five to 18. According to the study results, the more time children spent with friends, the more they engaged in physical activity, which in turn lowered rates of obesity.

“Efforts to reduce child obesity could benefit from careful attention to peer and friendship dynamics rather than simply focusing on time spent watching television,” said Elizabeth A. Vandewater, Ph.D., lead author and associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at the School of Public Health.

Another surprising finding is that some school nutrition policies might be counterproductive. In this case although many states across the United States have banned the sale of soda in high schools, some schools have chosen to substitute soda with other sugar-sweetened beverages in vending machines.

In this paper of the special issue, Daniel Taber, Ph.D., and co-authors examined how these policies that regulate the sale of sodas in high schools affect alternate sugary drink consumption, such as tea, coffee, energy, and sports drinks.

The researchers drew their data from the National Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Study, conducted in 2010 with 10,887 participants. They discovered in schools and states that regulated both vending machines and soda sales, there was no increase in alternate sugary drink consumption. However, consumption of alternate sugary drinks increased when states and schools did not regulated both the sale of soda and the availability of vending machines.

“Banning soda, but allowing sports drinks and coffee drinks in vending machines, just shifts sugary drink consumption from soda to the alternatives,” said Taber, assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at the School of Public Health.

Research also shows that obesity has immediate consequences for school performance.

Investigators discovered obese children are more likely to have school absences, school problems and lower school engagement than non-overweight children. Investigators believe this study provides evidence that obesity in children is associated with immediate poorer educational outcomes.

Another study confirmed the deleterious effects of the social environment as researchers discovered school poverty rates impact all students’ odds of being obese. Investigators found that students in economically disadvantaged schools were 1.7 to 2.4 times more likely to be obese, regardless of their individual family’s income.

While the external environment can contribute to obesity, researchers discovered the home food environment can actually overcome certain risk factors for child obesity.

In this study, the home food environment, including mealtime structure and availability of healthy or unhealthy foods, was able to account for the differences in children’s’ diet quality across socioeconomic and neighborhood factors. Making healthy foods more available, turning off the television during meals, and restricting unhealthy foods could lead to better diets and lower rates of child obesity among these at-risk populations.

A popular theme in obesity research is the topic of food deserts with investigators calling for use of focus groups to help identify a neighborhood or community needs. Researchers discovered the most important barriers that influence healthy food shopping behaviors are the prices of food, lack of access, and poor quality of the available healthy food.

Investigators found that conducting a needs-assessment in an area with inadequate access to healthy foods allows the community to offer potential solutions and provide direction for future planning. Solutions could include placing new supermarkets in these communities and developing farmers markets and community gardens.

The final article in the special edition calls for correcting discrepancies in self-reported heights and weights across various demographics. In this case researchers examined the differences between the self-reported and actual heights and weights of 24,221 eighth- and 11th-grade students in Texas using the School Physical Activity and Nutrition (SPAN) study data.

Investigators discovered teenage boys tend to overestimate their height and teenage girls tend to underestimate their weight, when they are surveyed. The analyses and correctional equations provided in the article provide child obesity researchers with tools to improve the reliability of self-reported data.

Source: University of Texas Health School of Public Health