At this point there is little debate over whether or not there is an Obesity Epidemic in the United States. Two out of every three adults is considered overweight while 1 out of every three is considered obese. For children, the rates of obesity are unfortunately very similar. One out of every three children is considered overweight or obese and one out of every six children is considered clinically obese. Once thought to be a simple matter of dietary choices, new research is showing that a lot more goes into determining whether or not someone becomes obese than initially thought.

Childhood Obesity

Staggering amounts of children in the United States are considered overweight or obese and despite efforts to combat it, rates have remained relatively constant over the last decade. As weight contributes to far more than the number on the scale, it is understandable that weight management has become a focus of public health over the past few years. According to the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at the University of California San Diego, 70% of obese children have already started exhibiting the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Additionally obese children are more likely to have type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, gallstones, fatty liver disease, asthma, and a slew of other health problems.

These issues are likely to continue into adulthood as obese children are significantly more likely to become obese adults.

Environmental factors

Children that are overweight tend to have parents who exert more control over the food they eat. This is a natural response, however, a research team at the University of Illinois has found that this may actually have the opposite effect.

When parents restrict their child's food intake, it tends to give the child an unhealthy mindset when it comes to dietary choices. This attention to weight and food restriction increases the risk that a child will be obese in adulthood.

Parents often give their children food when they are upset but Kelly Bost a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois advises against this as well.

Bost claims that by giving food to children when they are upset, parents foster an environment in which the child learns to use food as a way of coping with their emotions. This leads to overeating long term.

The COMT gene

One factor that the UI researchers were particularly interested in was the role of the COMT gene in childhood obesity risk. The COMT gene produces a protein which helps to regulate dopamine levels in the brain. As a result, COMT plays an important part in emotion and cognition. With a few alternative versions of the COMT gene available (one from the child's biological mother and one from the biological father), the COMT gene varies in what amino acids it contains from child to child.

The UI researchers looked into a specific change in the 158th amino acid in the genetic sequence and found that children who had the amino acid methionine instead of valine tend to be more reactive to stress and negative emotions which may lead to them using food as a coping mechanism.

Dad's Role

Dr. Michelle Wong served as the head researcher in a study that was recently published by The Obesity Society. Through her work, she found that the father's level of involvement seemed to be correlated to the child's obesity risk. Increased involvement by in activities such as bathing, cleaning, and playtime was connected to decreased levels of obesity. Wong advises that this research is still rather preliminary and doesn't take into account the mother's role. She says that it is likely that the involvement of both parents plays a significant role in obesity rates.