A child’s weight during kindergarten may serve as a strong predictor of whether he or she will develop childhood obesity later in life.
New research from Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health suggests that the development of childhood obesity is strongly established by kindergarten – as overweight 5-year-olds are four times as likely as normal weight children to become obese by the 8th grade.
According to lead author Dr. Venkat Narayan, the researchers conducted their study because they were interested in getting a better understanding of how early childhood obesity begins.
“We’ve been seeing high levels of women with obesity by the times they reach [elementary] school and adolescence,” Narayan, Ruth and OC Hubert Chair of Global Health and professor of medicine and epidemiology at Emory University, told FoxNews.com. “But what’s not clear is at what rate children develop obesity for the first time, particularly at younger ages.”
Narayan and co-author Solveig Cunningham, an assistant professor at Rollins School of Public Health utilized data collected by the U.S. Department of Education, analyzing the height and weight measurements of 7,738 children enrolled in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of the U.S. Kindergarten Class of 1998 to 1999. The study followed the children from kindergarten – when the kids were an average of 5 years old – to 8th grade – when they were around 14 years old.
Using growth charts developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the researchers established each child’s body-mass index (BMI) as it changed over time – categorizing the children as normal weight, overweight (85th percentile BMI) or obese (95th percentile BMI).
By the time the children had entered kindergarten, 12 percent were considered obese and an additional 14 percent were considered overweight. Of the normal weight children, only 8 percent went on to develop obesity by age 14, while 32 percent of the overweight and obese kindergartens became obese by the 8th grade.
“The biggest risk of developing new obesity from ages 5 to 14 is really driven by kids entering kindergarten overweight,” Narayan said. “Those children who were born large or are overweight at age 5, something is happening very early in life which sets the pathway to obesity.”
The findings also revealed that obesity incidence decreased with age during elementary school years and obesity rates differed between racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and more than tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. And in 2010, more than 1/3 of children and adolescents were considered obese or overweight. Given these statistics and their study’s revelations, Narayan argued that more focus should be placed on children’s overall health in their earliest years of life.
“It’s not about focusing just on weight – it’s about healthy nutrition and healthy physical activity,” Narayan said. “It’s true for school children; it should be true for preschool children. Obesity may have to do with things that happen before a child is born. Clearly we want healthy weight gain in the first five years of life and beyond.”