Public health expert discusses children's obesity at conference

Thursday, April 8, 2010 | 9:39 p.m. CDT; updated 2:31 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 7, 2011

COLUMBIA — Getting inside the heads of teachers and parents was stressed as a vital component in the battle against childhood obesity at a lecture Thursday.

Theresa A. Nicklas, a doctor of public health and professor of pediatrics, gave a presentation about childhood obesity in Acuff auditorium in the Medical Sciences Building on the MU campus Thursday. Nicklas works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and at the Agricultural Research Service Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine. The speech was given before an audience of about 20 people as part of the Hogan Memorial Lecture, as part of a Nutrition and Exercise Research Week hosted at MU.

Nicklas's speech emphasized that obesity is complex and cannot be traced to any single cause. According to the Centers For Disease Control, 12 percent of Missouri high school students were obese in 2007.

“There’s no simple answer to the obesity epidemic,” Nicklas said. “You can say it’s the computers, it’s the parenting, it’s the soft drinks, but my hunch is that it’s not one size fits all when it comes to obesity; it’s a combination of many different factors.”


Some of these factors include:

  • Genetics
  • Lifestyle
  • Physical activity
  • Environment

It is the last factor that Nicklas feels is the hardest to quantify.

"I don't think we understand the environment we're working in," Nicklas said. "No study has been done about the impact of family stress on feeding."

She presented several different models for feeding styles.

Authoritarian- The parent determines what food is offered and what food is eaten during a strictly structured meal.

Permissive- The child determines what food is offered and eaten. There is little or no structure during meal time.

Authoritative- A mix of authoritarian and permissive, the parent determines what food is offered and the child determines what food is eaten. Nicklas called this method ideal.

Tips for healthy snacking:

  • Availability and accessibility often determines what a child will chose as a snack. Nicklas says it's a good start to keep a bag of carrots in the refrigerator, but if the carrots are washed and cut and kept at a child's eye level they're more likely to end up as the child's choice.
  • Conversely, simply denying all access to junk foods, for example, removing vending machines from schools, has little effect on the child's dietary intake over the entire day.

"If you’re going to take it out of the vending machines, show me one study that shows they’re eating better in a 24-hour period," Nicklas said.

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