Tubby Toddlers and Portly Preschoolers

Studies look at possible causes for rising obesity rates among young children

(RxWiki News) Two recent studies point toward causes for the expanding rates of obesity -- and related health problems such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension -- among children. Problems start earlier than you think.

A University of Oregon study of preschoolers ages 3 through 5 involving two separate experiments found that salt, sugar and fat were the three ingredients kids prefer overwhelmingly, and that the kids could identify which fast-food and soda brands could service their cravings.

The first experiment of the study followed 67 children (31 boys, 36 girls) and their mothers, who were recruited from pre-school classes in a metropolitan area. The mothers completed a 21-item survey relating their children's taste preferences. Parents noted their kids' preference for foods high in sugar, fat and salt, while their children indicated a preference for flavor-added foods -- such as cheese puffs, sodas and chocolate milk -- when asked to identify pictures of foods (without labels) they preferred.

In the second experiment, researchers found that 108 children (54 boys, 54 girls) from five metropolitan-area pre-schools demonstrated an emerging awareness of fast-food brands and sugar-sweetened beverages. Each child was shown 36 randomly sorted cards -- 12 featuring images of popular fast-food chains, six featuring images of two leading soda companies and six depicting irrelevant products -- and each child was able to correlate the images with the correct corporation or brand.

Perhaps contributing to these taste preferences, University of Calgary researchers recently found 53 percent of food products that were targeted to babies and toddlers in Canadian grocery stores include an excessive amount of calories (more than 20 percent) derived from sugar.

"People expect these foods to be held to a higher standard," said professor and study author Charlene Elliott, an associate professor in the Communications & Culture department, who added this is not always the case.

The expanding amount of foods targeted to toddlers -- including cereal bars, cookies/biscuits, fruit snacks and yogurt -- were not nutritionally superior to adult equivalents and in some cases contained even more sugar, possibly creating sugar-junkies at an early age.

T. Bettina Cornwell, a professor of marketing in the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business, said waiting for kids to learn about proper nutrition in school is waiting too long considering the connections of fat, sugar and salt-content to obesity. These children turn to condiments to add fat, sugar, salt flavors to ensure the foods they eat match their taste preferences. Cornwell said the issue is one of public policy, and that if intervention is key, "we probably need to start earlier."

Elliott said that while many toddler foods derive their sugar content from naturally occurring fruit sugars, many products contain added sugars, making a careful examination of the ingredient list a must for parents.