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Research drives insight to tackle childhood obesity

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Research helps consumers, policy makers and healthcare professionals turn the tide on childhood obesity.

The causes of childhood obesity are complex, with genetics, culture, environmental, and socio-economic factors all playing their role. “It requires a concerted effort on behalf of all of us – the food industry, parents, teachers and policy makers – to support our children as they grow up,” says Professor Janet Cade, who leads the Nutritional Epidemiology Group at the University of Leeds. This is no mean feat, and research is crucial in initiating change.

Sugar content of yoghurt exposed

The high sugar content of children’s snacks is certainly one contributing factor, and part of the problem is that many so-called ‘healthy options’ simply aren’t healthy. “Items labelled ‘organic’ are often thought to be the ‘healthiest’ option, but they may be an unrecognised source of added sugars in many people’s diets,” says Dr J Bernadette Moore, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds and lead author of research into the sugar content of yoghurts.

The study, published last September, found that the average sugar level in most yoghurts was well above the five grams of sugar per 100 grams required to carry a green ‘traffic light’. Most concerning is the fact that only two out of 101 children’s yoghurt products surveyed met the low sugar criteria.

New research into weaning

When it comes to encouraging healthy eating, it’s never too young to start. New research, due to be published by the university next month, goes right back to weaning. “The preference for sweet tastes is seen in babies and we’re just about to launch a report providing support for manufacturers of baby food,” says Professor Cade.

With one in ten children being classified as obese when they start primary school and one in five falling into that category by year six, intervention must start early. It will be interesting to see how this new research could help stem the rise of childhood obesity. 

Technology enables better monitoring

The research highlights the challenge that consumers have, but it’s also a challenge faced by healthcare professionals as they advise patients on nutrition and healthy living.

In response, Professor Cade led a team developing an online dietary monitoring tool. “Trying to characterise nutrient intake with our huge variety of foods in an accurate way is difficult, so we developed myfood24,” says Professor Cade.

Previously, researchers and healthcare professionals had little more to rely on than a pencil and paper but now, with apps making monitoring simpler, it could equate to better patient outcomes.  

Professor Cade believes that the online tool’s benefits could stretch even further, following successful trials within secondary schools. Research found that, while adolescents are typically reluctant to talk about their eating habits within a class, they were keen to interact with the technology.

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