Childhood Obesity: Prevention and Parents are Key (says the CBC)

I have always dreamed of being on the CBC. CBC radio has been my backdrop on busy Mondays, in slow traffic on Wednesday afternoons and lazy Sunday mornings at the cottage. Listening always got me thinking about what it would be like to share my research with Canada. And early Tuesday morning, I got the chance to do just that! 

Parents and Tots Together (PTT) is an obesity prevention intervention that aims to help parents with general parenting behaviours (discipline, reducing the stress of having a young child) and improve children's weight related behaviours (getting more sleep and activity, watching less TV and drink less sugary drinks). I helped develop PTT along with my advisor Dr. Jess Haines, during my Masters degree. I chatted with the CBC Kitchener-Waterloo on Tuesday morning about the program. Take a listen here

As a side note: Being on the radio is nerve-racking. I was told that the morning show producer would call me at 8:10 in the morning and literally 20 seconds later, I was live! I'm really glad that my shaking hands didn't also come across in my voice. I guess that's what happens when you get the chance to talk about something that you've worked so hard on (and love so much!).  

Research tells us that children who are overweight or obese by age 6 will generally be overweight or obese as teens and young adults.  Eating habits are also set by the age of 5 years and food choices made during the preschool years are strongly associated with those made in adulthood. If any of you have ever attempted to change your eating habits or get to the gym more, you know how hard changing a behaviour as an adult can be. Similarly, the older children get, the harder it is to change their behaviours. This is why the preschool age group is such an important time to think about prevention. 

As a dietitian, I aim to make sure that my research positively impacts the parents and children that I study. While I want to learn about their home environment and eating habits, I also want to help parents promote healthy behaviours for their little ones. That is why the Parents and Tots Together (PTT) program was a perfect fit! 

Using weekly group sessions, facilitated by either a dietitian or a community worker, PTT uses video vignettes showing various parenting techniques (managing temper tantrums) or behaviours around healthy behaviours (creating a bedtime routine, listening to children's hunger cues) to prompt parent discussion and problem solving surrounding these common parent-child interactions. While the primary goal was to influence children's weight status, we also wanted to look beyond body mass index to help parent's create healthy home environments. To read more about the study, check out my publication in the Canadian Journal of Public Health

One of the most exciting results of the study was that we were able to help parents reduce their stress levels and be more confident in managing their children's behaviours. If parents are less stressed and not spending the majority of their time managing their kids, they will likely have more time to engage in healthy behaviours. My other research has shown that parents who are less stressed are able to limit the amount of TV their kids watch, and their kids are more physically active. In the long run, kids who are more active will have a healthier weight status. 

What's the take home message here? Health behaviours (eating habits, physical activity, sleep etc.) matter for young children, but so does the environment in which they live. Parenting behaviours such as parent stress levels can impact this environment so it is also important to address these factors. For parents that are stressed, attempting to change behaviours can just add to their stress, limiting the success of the change. Since parents are the primary influence in young children's lives, it is important to engage them, and support them (*perhaps by helping them to reduce stress) in changing the behaviours of their children. 

PTT (and me) had it's 15 minutes of fame this week! Here are the stories written about the program: 

CBC: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/university-of-guelph-childhood-obesity-session-also-relieved-parent-stress-1.3542918

CTV: http://guelph.ctvnews.ca/u-of-g-program-designed-to-create-healthy-behaviours-in-children-1.2858916

Waterloo Record: y/6509113-childhood-obesity-program-reduced-parent-stress/

- Kathryn