School lunches and TV to blame for childhood obesity

While junk food and sugary drinks get a bad rap in the conversation about childhood obesity, new research suggests other causes for weight gain might deserve more of our attention.

A University of Michigan study found that television viewing and school lunches were the two factors most often associated with obesity in middle-school aged children.

Gender differences

While other studies have linked school lunch consumption to obesity, the issue of socioeconomic status has always been an interfering factor, said Elizabeth Jackson, M.D.., M.P.H., and assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. Children from low-income families who might be eligible for free lunch, for example, could already be overweight, given the link between obesity and poor socioeconomic status.

Yet the University of Michigan study – which included data on 1,714 sixth grade students in Project Healthy Schools – shines light on interesting gender differences related to childhood obesity. Milk consumption seemed to protect girls from obesity, but made no difference for boys. Male students who played on a sports team were also more likely to be a healthier weight, the study found.

Screen time

Gender differences were also seen in how children spent daily screen time: 61 percent of obese boys and 63 percent of obese girls reported watching television for two or more hours per day. Obese girls were more likely to use a computer, while obese boys tended to play more video games than healthy boys.

"Exploring such gender-related differences in a larger group may help in refining the interventions to promote weight loss and prevent obesity among middle-school children," said study author Morgen Govindan, an investigator with the Michigan Cardiovascular Research and Reporting Program at the U-M.

The obese children in the study were more likely to have poor cardiovascular health, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels than healthy children.

"Cardiovascular disease doesn't just start in adulthood, and there may be factors that could help us identify during youth or adolescence who might be at increased risk for developing health problems later on," Jackson said.

The Project Healthy School program aims to help kids learn heart-healthy lifestyles through behavior modification, like eating more fruits and vegetables, reducing consumption of sugary drinks and getting 150 minutes or more of exercise each week.

Source: University of Michigan Health System

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