Obesity is a Family Illness: Research Offers Clues on How to Stop the Cycle

June 2003 - The first step in addressing the obesity epidemic is to teach parents of young children how to eat right, according to new Saint Louis University research published in this month's issue of Preventive Medicine.

"Obesity is a family illness," says Debra Haire-Joshu, Ph.D., principle investigator and director of the Obesity Prevention Center at Saint Louis University School of Public Health. "Children typically are not born obese. They learn to become obese in an environment that encourages it. If parents are eating poorly, that's what they're providing their children."

To reach young children, Haire-Joshu says, you have to reach the parents first. So Saint Louis University School of Public Health teamed up with Parents As Teachers (PAT), a national, free educational program for parents of children from birth to age 3, to show parents simple strategies to eat healthier that they could model to their children.

Some families received personal dietary information during routine visits from their parent educators, along with nutrition newsletters. Other families did not receive specific nutrition information.

Parents who received nutrition information ate more fruits and vegetables than parents who didn't get the materials. They also consumed less fat, although the difference was not as pronounced.

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"What we showed in the study is parents who institute very simple changes can significantly impact their health. When parents have kids, they want the best for their kids. We get them at a very teachable moment," Dr. Haire-Joshu says.

"Our society receives consistent messages to eat more and move less. This is a way to balance some of those messages to very young families."

Dr. Haire-Joshu says parents likely began to eat healthier because the changes suggested were relatively small. For example, families that ate fried foods for five dinners during the week could try cutting back to four fried dinners. Or mothers who enjoy eating at fast food restaurants were encouraged to add lettuce and tomato to a smaller burger than they generally ordered.

"Most people are aware they need to eat right. They don't know how to do it. What we've discovered is a way of delivering a consistent message over time to a population where you're going to have the most effect."

The nutrition initiative, known as the High 5, Low Fat Program, is funded by the National Cancer Institute and targets African-American families who are at greater risk of dietary cancers. Saint Louis University School of Public Health is one of only 30 fully accredited schools of public health in the United States and the nation's only School of Public Health sponsored by a Jesuit university. It is home to seven nationally recognized research centers and laboratories with funding sources that include the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Health Resources and Services Administration, the American Cancer Society, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the World Health Organization.

Source: Saint Louis University