Family Matters

64 Calories a Day: What Kids Need to Cut to Reverse the Obesity Trend

Researchers analyzed historical data on children's height and weight and calculated that the childhood obesity rate will rise to 21% by 2020 unless children eat less, exercise more or both.

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Sixty-four calories is about four ounces of apple juice or a quarter of an oatmeal raisin walnut CLIF bar. It’s also the number of calories U.S. kids need to trim from their daily diet if they’re going to meet the federal goals for slashing obesity by 2020. 

Without cutting those calories — either by eating less, exercising more or both — a child or teen in 2020 would tip the scales at nearly 4 lbs. more than a kid of the same age weighed in 2007-08, according to research by Columbia University researchers published Tuesday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. That would result in more than 20% of children being classified as obese; the current figure is 17%. 

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“Sixty-four calories may not sound like much individually, but it’s quite a consequential number at the population level, and children at greatest risk for obesity face an even larger barrier,” Dr. Y. Claire Wang, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said in a statement. “Closing this gap between how many calories young people are consuming and how many they are expending will take substantial, comprehensive efforts.” 

At stake is a phenomenon known as the energy gap, or the difference between caloric intake and caloric burn. Although 64 calories is the average that young people would need to cut out, many groups would have to downsize even more to meet the government’s obesity standards. Black children would need to trim 138 calories from their daily diet, and Hispanic youth would need to decrease intake by 91 calories. White kids, on the other hand, would need to trim just 46 calories.

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Researchers arrived at their weighty conclusions by analyzing national data on height and weight among U.S. children ages 2 to 19 from 1971 to 2008. The trends led the scientists to project a rise in the childhood obesity rate to 21% even as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is calling for it to decline to 14.6%. It’s been 10 years since the childhood obesity rate has been that low. 

But enough talk, say the researchers. Now it’s time for action, and they’re trying to raise awareness of other research that has identified calorie savings by substituting water for sugary beverages in schools (12 fewer calories), offering quality physical education programs for kids ages 9 to 11 (another 19 calories burned) and encouraging extracurricular exercise for elementary kids (25 calories fewer). If U.S. kids are ever going to slim down, writes William H. Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in an accompanying commentary, the key lies in the “promise of prevention.”

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