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Multisite Project Promotes Family-Focused Approach to Obesity Prevention for Preschoolers

PULLMAN, Wash.—The next time your preschooler says “I’m full” at the dinner table, listen. Young children have a better internal sense for when they’ve eaten enough than parents may realize. And a new five-year, USDA-funded project aims to employ children’s innate self-regulation to develop a childhood obesity program that focuses on family eating styles.

“Young children are really good at controlling their calorie intake, but many kids lose that ability as they get older. That often leads to overeating,” says Thomas Power, chair of WSU’s Department of Human Development and a project co-investigator. “Why is it that kids lose that natural ability? We wondered what the parents’ role might be.”

Power is working with researchers from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, University of Colorado Medical School in Denver and North Carolina State University to expand their earlier studies on the impact of parental control on childhood eating habits. Funded by a $4 million grant from the USDA’s Agricultural and Food Research Initiative, the new project allows Power and his colleagues to develop, pilot and test a family-focused childhood obesity prevention program in Houston and two Washington cities, Yakima and Tacoma.

In its earlier work, the team observed 143 Houston-area families, 84 Latino and 59 African American, during three separate meals, recording all verbal and nonverbal interactions between mother and child with other family members present at the table. The researchers identified three common feeding styles among parents of young children: overcontrolling, indulgent and responsive.

Overcontrolling parents decide what and how much their children will eat, regardless of how hungry they are. Over time, children of these parents ignore their own hunger cues, which can put them at risk for obesity. More risky are indulgent parents, who let their children eat whatever and as much as they want, whether their choices are nutritious or not. Responsive parents offer their children healthy food choices and still let them decide how much they want to eat, which encourages youngsters to pay attention to their own signals of being hungry or full.

“(The responsive style) seems to be associated with the lowest obesity risk,” Power says. “Kids who can regulate are less likely to be obese.”

A family-focused program promises greater success in preventing childhood obesity because it reaches children as they are establishing lifelong eating and activity habits and before they enter school. Existing school-based prevention programs aren’t as successful once these habits are set, and they don’t emphasize the family environment. More importantly, no program has focused on the self-regulation of eating—a critical contributor to childhood obesity.

“Given the importance of parents in impacting young children’s eating patterns, it is likely that the most successful obesity prevention programs for young children are those that intervene directly with young children and their parents—especially programs that focus on encouraging the self-regulation of energy intake,” Power and the researchers suggest.

The new program will also consider socioeconomic and cultural differences in feeding styles. Almost all previous studies of feeding and childhood obesity risk involved middle-class, European American mothers, yet childhood obesity rates are higher in low-income, minority populations. Cultural and social norms regarding children’s body size vary among different ethnic groups, Power says. For some, a heavier child is considered healthier. Some cultures use food to express love and family closeness.

“Learning to acknowledge children’s self-regulation cues is not showing less love,” he adds.

Other researchers on the project are developmental psychologist Sheryl Hughes from the Baylor College of Medicine; nutritionist Susan Johnson from the University of Colorado Medical School; and nutritionist Suzie Goodell from North Carolina State University. For more information about parental influences on childhood eating habits, visit the eXtension Web site.)

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Media Contacts

Thomas Power, Professor and Chair, (509) 335-9540