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Stanford researchers recommend simple steps for curbing childhood obesity

By Michelle Wie | 14 Feb 2011

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Stanford University researchers are helping curb childhood obesity by recommending smaller dishware and discouraging eating junk food while watching TV. (Photo: Creative Commons)

An ongoing study conducted by the Stanford Center on Longevity shows that environmental changes in homes, such as using smaller dishware and not eating in front of the television, leads to weight loss for obese children.

After six months, 85 percent of the children in the study had reduced their weight by at least 10 percent, according to Dr. Tom Robinson, the study’s lead researcher, and a professor who also directs the Center for Healthy Weight at Stanford University and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

And, as a side bonus of the study, Robinson said, “A large portion of the parents also lost weight even though our focus was on the kids.”

Children in the study were between 8 and 12 years old. To qualify, children had to be in the 95th  percentile or higher on the Centers for Disease Control’s Body Mass Index (BMI) chart, which relates people’s weights to their heights. Children qualifying for this study had a BMI of about 22, making them, by CDC standards, obese.

In all, researchers chose 160 families to participate in the study, which took place at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Researchers visited the homes of about half of these families and suggested changes in their eating environments, Robinson said.

Children enrolled in a six-month, family-based, behavioral treatment program. During the study, groups of 12 families met together and attended weekly sessions in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, or San Jose.

Parents were required to attend each session to support their child, and encourage the changes in their eating behaviors that researchers recommended.

“The major things we work on are changing dishware to emphasize smaller sizes and smaller servings and also focus on eliminating eating in front of the TV,” Robinson said.  “You eat more when you serve yourself more and you eat more when you eat while watching TV.”

Researchers also replaced junk food with healthier snack options such as fruits and vegetables.

Robinson explained that children eat more when using larger dishware. “The same portions look smaller on bigger plates or bowls or in shorter and wider cups and glasses. So people tend to serve themselves more onto larger dishware and into shorter, wider cups and glasses, and then consume what’s on their plates and bowls or in their glasses.”

“You eat with your eyes more than with your stomach,” Robinson added. “People are generally pretty poor at estimating how much they are eating.” Even when using state-of-the-art recall methods, he said, studies show that 10 minutes after eating, children have a 50 percent error rate in estimating how much they ate.

Television distracts children as they eat, causing them to eat more, Robinson added.

“When you are distracted while eating you miss recognizing the normal satiety cues when you are full. Instead, you tend to eat until the serving is gone or until the show is over,” Robinson said. “Many people have experienced sitting down in front of the TV with a package of chips or other snacks or sweets and not noticing how much they have eaten until the package is empty.”

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