Childhood Eating Habits May Persist Into Adolescence and Lead to Obesity

Chinese children are likely to maintain their dietary intake patterns from childhood into adolescence, a new study has found.

The study, conducted by Youfa Wang, assistant professor of human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago, along with colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Institute of Nutrition and Food Hygiene of the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine in Beijing, appears in the March 1 edition of the Journal of Nutrition.

"It's being shown more and more that diet and lifestyle in childhood and adolescence have a potential lifelong effect on risks for many chronic diseases such as obesity, coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and certain types of cancer," Wang said. "We are also observing an alarming increase in childhood obesity not only in industrialized countries but also in many developing countries. It's important to realize that childhood and adolescence are critical periods for individuals to develop healthy eating habits and to lay the foundation for future good health."

The researchers examined data for 984 Chinese children collected from 1991 to 1997. The children, who came from eight provinces of China, ranged in age from six to 13 at the survey's outset. Socioeconomic factors also were evaluated. The diets were categorized as high fat, high carbohydrate, high energy, high vegetable and fruit, low vegetable and fruit and high meat.

About half of those children who initially consumed one of the six diets continued the same eating habits six years later, a statistically significant finding. It was also found that differences in environment (urban vs. rural), family income and the mother's education level were important in predicting the dietary patterns of the children.

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For example, the study found that children from urban and high-income families were more likely to maintain a high fat/high meat diet suggesting that economic development in China has made expensive foods such as meat and cooking oils more affordable. This also may suggest that with the rise in living standards, those who have found new prosperity may also be at an increased risk for nutritional problems related to chronic disease.

This study is consistent with other smaller studies which link chronic diseases to dietary patterns that prevail before and change only marginally during puberty.

"We hope increased understanding in the dietary patterns of children and adolescents will enhance our efforts to promote healthy eating behavior in these age groups to prevent chronic diseases," Wang said.

Other authors on the paper are Barry Popkin and Margaret Bentley of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Fengying Zhai of the Institute of Nutrition and Food Hygiene of the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine in Beijing. The study was part of Wang's doctoral dissertation at North Carolina. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Fogarty International Center, the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Source: University of Illinois at Chicago