Digits on a scale can help determine a child’s weight, but their overall health status can be influenced by other factors such as physical activity, diet and screen time, according to new research from the University of Alberta and Alberta Health Services.
A study of 181 children with obesity aged eight to 17 years old showed that up to a third could be classified as “metabolically healthy,” meaning they’re not imminently at risk of developing insulin resistance — a precursor to Type 2 diabetes — high blood pressure, high cholesterol or other obesity-related diseases.
“It’s not all about fat, even for kids who meet the definition of obesity,” explained Geoff Ball, senior author and associate professor of pediatrics in the U of A’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, and clinical director of Stollery Children’s Hospital’s Pediatric Centre for Weight and Health, a weight management clinic for children with obesity. “Lifestyle behaviors — how physically active they are and what they eat — those things have an effect on their health, independent of fatness.”
A PhD in nutrition and metabolism, Ball and his team studied five years’ worth of clinical data, tracking the age and body composition of obese children, lifestyle behaviors such as physical activity and diet, along with clinical indicators associated with obesity such as insulin resistance, blood pressure, and fat and glucose levels in the blood.
Fewer calories consumed, less screen time
Though numerous studies have explored whether patients with obesity can be metabolically healthy, few have focused on children. In addition to being more physically active, metabolically healthier children were younger, shorter, lighter and less overweight than their metabolically unhealthy peers. They also spent less time in front of the TV, computer or video game console and ate fewer overall calories, including less fat and fewer servings of meat.
The study included traditional measures of obesity such as body mass index, which factors in an individual’s height and weight but doesn’t tell the whole story, Ball said.
“Obesity is often described as a complex disease with lots of causes and lots of consequences. Not everyone has the same consequences,” he said. “Someone with Type 2 diabetes could have less body fat than somebody who has quite a bit more body fat and doesn’t have Type 2 diabetes. There is considerable variability between individuals.”
Ball said the findings should help physicians and other health professionals understand the complexity of obesity for treating patients and prioritizing referral to specialized weight-management care. Roughly two million young, obese Canadians meet eligibility criteria for such treatment — far more than the two dozen or so clinics across the country can accommodate, he added.
For Edmonton-area patients, having access to the comprehensive management approach at the Stollery’s Pediatric Centre for Weight and Health means families receive the most appropriate intervention based on their health status and individual needs. The multidisciplinary team, including
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