UT pediatrician: Better data needed to help combat childhood obesity

July 16, 2009 | Research
By Jim Winkler

More and better data are needed to determine what types of approaches work best in combating childhood obesity, according to a University of Toledo pediatrician.

Dr. Joan Griffith talked about the dangers of overeating with patient Miesha Richardson.

Dr. Joan Griffith talked about the dangers of overeating with patient Miesha Richardson.

Dr. Joan Griffith, associate professor and interim chief of general pediatrics, reviewed the practices of 80 childhood-obesity prevention programs administered by schools, academic teaching hospitals, community hospitals, clinics, health-care plans, community health centers and other groups across the country, hoping to identify what she called “a best practice for addressing childhood obesity in low socioeconomic and diverse communities.” She also analyzed recommendations of a 1998 national childhood obesity expert committee and interviewed five key childhood obesity authorities.

However, her study was not able to identify the best practice because of variations and inconsistencies in the programs’ data-collection efforts. For example, only 49 of the 80 programs she examined provided outcomes data.

Her study, “Assessing Childhood Obesity Programs in Low Socioeconomic and Diverse Communities,” was the result of work she did while earning a master of public health degree in 2007 from Harvard University, where she completed the Commonwealth Fund/Harvard University Fellowship in Minority Health Policy Program. It appeared in the May issue of the Journal of the National Medical Association.

“Our results imply that improvement in data collection/documentation by childhood obesity program leaders is the linchpin to identification of evidence-based effective interventions,” Griffith said.

Given the magnitude and the complexity of the problem, she said there is an urgent need to evaluate what are thought to be the best practices and evaluate their long-term effectiveness.

“If we are looking to determine the best practices, it’s critical that information is based on scientific evidence,” she said.

Griffith said the study provides some evidence that programs that encourage lifestyle changes, focus on the family, emphasize prevention and involve the community do the best job when it comes to gathering and analyzing data.

Generally recognized as a health time bomb, childhood obesity is linked to an increased risk of health problems later in life, including cancer, heart problems and diabetes. While genetics plays a role, Griffith said the culprits are increased consumption of unhealthy, calorie-laden fast foods and lack of physical exercise.

The obesity epidemic, she said, won’t be solved overnight because it is multifaceted. Parents, pediatricians, nurses, nutritionists, schools, hospitals, clinics, community health organizations, businesses and government all have roles in preventing and reducing childhood obesity.

Parents need to take the initiative by monitoring the amount and kinds of food their children eat, by providing nutritious meals, and by watching how much kids exercise, according to Griffith. They also should eat the way they want their children to eat and make sure their children are not watching too much television or spending too much time with video games, computers and cell phones. Parents who are concerned about a child’s weight should talk to their pediatricians and try to implement some simple steps to improve health.

“Parents should set the example by being active with their children,” she said. “We have become a technologically advanced country to our detriment. Too many children spend too much time sitting in front of the television.”

School systems can provide physical education and nutrition education and need to pay attention to what they are feeding children, she said. Cities must have parks and bicycling and walking lanes to encourage children to exercise.

“It is much better to prevent childhood obesity than to reverse it,” she said.

Griffith spent 21 years in the U.S. Air Force as a physician, retiring as a colonel, before moving into academic medicine.

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