As early as age 6, children who carry extra weight could be headed down a path toward future diabetes or heart disease, a new study suggests.
The study of nearly 1,000 Danish children found that overweight kids often had elevations in blood sugar and insulin by the time they were school-age. They also had higher triglycerides (a type of blood fat) than their peers but lower blood levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
Those differences were not, however, apparent among preschoolers who were overweight.
The researchers said the findings underscore the importance of a healthy diet and physical activity in the preschool years — before the effects of excess weight begin to arise.
In comparison to those school-age years, early childhood has traditionally gotten less attention when preventing and managing obesity, Staiano and Yaroch said. But that is changing.
In the new study, researchers at Copenhagen University Hospital Holbaek, in Denmark, followed 335 preschool children and 657 school-age children aged 6 to 8. In both age groups, about 14% were overweight — meaning they had a body mass index above the 90th percentile for their age and sex. (In the United States, the 85th percentile is considered overweight).
On average, school-age kids who carried extra weight had higher blood sugar and insulin levels than their peers — an indicator they could be on a trajectory toward type 2 diabetes. They also had more elevated triglycerides and lower levels of heart-protective HDL cholesterol. And a year later, the percentage of overweight school-age children had risen to 17%.
The study, led by Dr. Christine Frithioff-Bøjsøe, was published online in the Obesity Research & Clinical Practice journal. The findings were presented at the European Congress on Obesity meeting in Maastricht, the Netherlands.
A caveat, Staiano noted, is that even among overweight school kids, blood sugar, insulin, and other markers were still within the normal range. But, she added, seeing the differences at such a young age is concerning.
“We don’t know how this will affect them later in life,” said Staiano, who directs the Pediatric Obesity and Health Behavior Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La.
According to Staiano, one of the broad goals is to have formal programs aimed at child nutrition, and health and practical tools families can use at home. She noted that sometimes simple advice from health care providers can go a long way, for example, reading your baby’s hunger signals rather than always aiming to “finish the bottle” or giving appropriate portion sizes to toddlers.
Staiano said she thinks the American Academy of Pediatrics has been doing an excellent job helping doctors and other providers improve their child weight management skills.