updated 4/23/2004 2:36:22 PM ET 2004-04-23T18:36:22

Overweight children have greater success at losing weight if treatment is focused on their parents. That's the conclusion of a new study that followed a group of overweight children for eight years. According to the researchers, parents shape an environment that either supports or deters healthy behaviors in their children.

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Children between the ages of 6 to 11 were enrolled in the study. After the one-year counseling and assistance program, children in the half that was directed at parents reduced their weight by 14.6 percent. Those in the child-focused half decreased their weight by 8.4 percent.

A year later, children in the parent-centered group regained a little weight, but were still more than 13 percent less overweight than at the beginning. On the other hand, children in the other group were right back where they started. Seven years after the end of the program, children in both groups had healthier weights. But children who received the parent-focused treatment were 29 percent less overweight, while the others were only 20 percent less overweight. In the former group, 60 percent were no longer obese, while in the latter group only 31 percent reached that goal.

Parents influence teens, too
At the end of the eight years, the children were 14 to 19 years old. At this age, people are able to make healthy eating and exercise choices independently. This independence helps explain the great improvement shown seven years after the treatment programs ended, compared to one year afterwards. Yet even for teenagers, however, researchers note that parents' influence is still significant.

Parents influence children's eating and exercise habits, and thus their weight, at all ages in several ways. First, parents have an enormous impact as models of healthy - or unhealthy - eating and exercise habits. Parents who ignore good nutrition have a negative influence, as well as parents who cycle on and off diets. Studies suggest that parents have the most effect on what habits kids develop initially.

Parents are 'gate keepers'
Parents serve a second key role as providers. As "gate keepers," parents determine if vegetables and fruits are a major part of meals, or if healthy, low-fat food is available for snacks. The parents in the parent-centered half of the eight-year child obesity study were encouraged to provide healthy food choices for the whole family, with balanced meals and fewer low-nutrient foods like cookies and sodas.

Parents' third role as "enforcers" can have a major impact as well. As part of the training in the eight-year study, the researchers taught the more involved parents how to be authoritative without over-controlling. Parents learned how to actively limit sedentary behaviors in their children and provide balanced meals with appropriate beverage choices.

Passively allowing their children to adopt unhealthy eating and activity behavior was discouraged. Research demonstrates, however, that too over-controlling a parental style, like telling children when they have had enough to eat, creates long-term problems. Telling children when to stop eating prevents them from using internal hunger signals to regulate eating and, consequently, lays the foundation for a future of overeating.

Lastly, parents help children maintain a healthy weight by being their advocates and unconditional supporters. Parents should demand that school officials offer healthy food choices and opportunities for physical activity. Parents must also safeguard their children's self-esteem by emphasizing that weight is a health concern, not a measure of worth.

Persuading parents of overweight children to change their behaviors, too, is not assigning blame. It's a realistic plan to help children. This approach also benefits the whole family.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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