Focus sat down with Elsie Taveras, an assistant professor of population medicine and of pediatrics at HMS, to discuss a new Institute of Medicine report on early childhood obesity prevention. Slightly more than 20 percent of U.S. children between the ages of two and five are already overweight or obese, and nearly 10 percent of infants and toddlers carry excess weight for their length. Following is an excerpt from the conversation with Taveras, who is co-director of the Department of Population Medicine’s Obesity Prevention Program at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
Q: Are children now overweight at birth?
A: It doesn’t look like birth weight has been increasing. In fact, it looks as if birth weight has remained pretty stable. Children are pretty much starting, on average, at a healthy weight.
Q: Do children who are overweight as infants or toddlers typically lose the extra weight over time?
A: I think the evidence really does support that this excess weight gain early in life is associated with obesity in later childhood and even adulthood.
Q: What are the demographics of early childhood obesity? Is the problem pretty pervasive across the United States?
A: What interests me most about the trends, especially the more recent trends, is that even though we seem to have reached a plateau in obesity prevalence, the prevalence is still high—and disproportionately high among some subgroups in the United States, including African American children and Latino children. And you can already see what those early-life differences in obesity are going to mean for children as they get older. They’re more at risk for cardiovascular disease, for diabetes, for a whole host of issues that used to be adult problems.
A: Absolutely. The Institute of Medicine report was commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation after a pretty clear recognition that, for quite some time, our national efforts for obesity prevention have somewhat excluded children under six.
Q: What were some of the major recommendations?
A: There were several. The charge for the committee was to propose, based on evidence, potential areas where policies could be developed in areas and settings where children spend the most time. So a lot of the recommendations are targeted to professionals who work with children: health care professionals, child care professionals, education professionals. One of the first recommendations was that pediatricians and other primary health care professionals who measure children should use the appropriate standards for tracking growth in children; the report gave some suggestions on how to detect a child who is gaining excessive weight.
Listen to the full conversation with Taveras by downloading the podcast (mp3).