The New Childhood Obesity Fight Needs To Start Before Kindergarten

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A study released on Thursday by the New England Journal of Medicine Study finds that children that are overweight or obese by the age of five are more likely to be overweight by the age of 14, and subsequently into adulthood. The results force families, pediatricians, and nutrition professionals to reevaluate their attempts at remedying childhood obesity, and focus their attention on kids’ weight even before they enter school. It’s also somewhat of a rude awakening to parents who believe their child “will just grow out of it.”

Leann L. Birch, a University of Georgia professor of foods and nutrition, told the New York Times that current efforts to stem obesity in grade school level children are not working because “by the time kids are five, the horse is out of the barn.” Unfortunately, the study did little to provide an answer as to why increasing numbers of five-year-olds are overweight, although the researchers believe it may be due to a combination of “genetics and an atmosphere that promotes over eating.”

But future researchers now know that more study is needed on the factors behind the causes of obesity in very young children, which means exploration into much more complicated issues than dietary and exercise habits. To address obesity at this level, attention needs to be shifted to socioeconomic factors in “race, ethnicity and family income.”

Socioeconomic status is an indicator of how likely one is to be obese or have overweight children. Poverty often prevents families from buying healthy food and contributes to unhealthy pregnancies, both of which have negative effects on the health of children. Pregnant mothers in poverty are also exposed to greater health risks than more financially secure mothers. People in poverty tend to live in areas of poor air quality. And stress tends to increase the blood pressure of low-income pregnant mothers, which can weaken the immune system and increase the susceptibility to weight gain once a child is born.

Going forward in the policy debates over early childhood obesity, one issue is the cost from pregnancy to birth. Without mandatory paid leave for mothers and fathers, low-income parents have to choose between helping at home and paying for their home — a choice that, once again, contributes to harmful stress levels in pregnant mothers who know they will have to either work while pregnant or return immediately after giving birth. Giving birth is also much more expensive in the United States than in any other country, by over $5,000 for a “conventional delivery” and $10,000 for a caesarean delivery. If policymakers can find a way to reduce these costs, families living in poverty could find some stressful burdens alleviated and look forward to healthier pregnancies and newborns.

Childhood obesity is no longer a standalone issue — it is a symptom of growing poverty and hardship faced by the American people. Nonetheless, the number of school-age programs to reduce obesity outnumber the under-school-age programs. “Let’s Move,” led by First Lady Michelle Obama, does provide basic resources and information about breastfeeding, budgeting tips, and finger food options. But although the information from “Let’s Move” helps address concerns of some families in poverty, it does not help families get out of poverty.

Mason Atkins is an intern at ThinkProgress.