The problem of child obesity is severe like never before. The problem seems to be worse now that scientists now believe as a study from Tufts University this month proves, when it comes to being overweight, past is most definitely prologue.
''It's quite astounding -- this shows that we can't afford to wait," said Vivien Morris, a Boston Medical Center nutrition specialist involved with the initiative that brought the girls to the health center's pool, a campaign designed to help heavy children shed pounds before they hurtle into adolescence.
''There's been a misconception in the public and among some health professionals in thinking that girls who have early puberty are more likely to develop obesity," said Dr. Nicolas Stettler, a pediatric nutrition specialist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
The Tufts researcher found that in girls who experienced their first period before the age of 12, excessive weight was a probable trigger. The reasons for that aren't entirely clear, but scientists have theorized that deposits of fats may unleash a cascade of hormones alerting the body that it is capable of producing offspring.
Another theory: The excess calories consumed by an overweight girl cause her bones to grow faster and that, in turn, sends a signal that she can bear children .
So the girls who experienced early pubescence, Must concluded, tended to already be overweight. And those same women, once they reached their early 40s, were 7.7 times more likely than their peers to be overweight or obese.
The years before adolescence, then, emerge as a pivotal time for preventing a lifetime of excess weight -- for both biological and social reasons.
For one thing, younger children are more willing to listen to adults and less susceptible to peer pressure, making it easier to convey this message: ''There's nothing inherent about children that's incompatible with a natural diet abundant in fruit and vegetables. If that was the case, the human species would have died out years ago," said Dr. David Ludwig, a Children's Hospital Boston obesity specialist.
Still, obesity and nutrition specialists acknowledged, in a world of epicurean temptation -- soft drinks, salty snacks, fried foods -- it's not easy to get children to eat the right thing.
''With kids," Must said, ''there's always the concern that severely restricted diets can restrict growth. With obesity, there are no magic bullets."
Some girls were participating in something called Fantastic Kids. It started in spring 2004 as a pilot program for girls heavier than 85 percent of their peers -- sometimes weighing as much as an adult. There are games in the pool, weights to be lifted at the gym. ''And in the classroom, we have them tell us what they eat and measure the fat," said Salema Harold, a counselor in the program. ''They would say, 'Oh my God. Eww. That's how much fat we eat?' "
But does it make any difference? In a 12-week pilot study, the girls' weight was tracked. The result: Overall, weight gain stopped and some girls even began unloading a few pounds.
Source: Tufts University