Understanding how environment and lifestyle influence childhood obesity.

Obesity 220x180
Today, with more than 15% of American children considered obese, it’s feared that weight-related diseases will reach epidemic levels as these youth reach adulthood. Two Seattle Children’s researchers, who share a focus on identifying causes of and solutions for childhood obesity, are working to reverse this trend by changing access to healthy foods and physical activity.

Brian Saelens, PhD, a health psychologist with Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, merges his clinical pursuits in evaluating family-based interventions for childhood obesity with studying built environments to investigate how home and neighborhood affect a child’s eating and physical activity. Saelens is looking at how the availability of parks, fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, along with the “walkability” of a community, impact kids’ health, in the National Institutes of Health-sponsored project Neighborhood Impact on Kids.

By identifying which environmental factors make the biggest difference, Saelens believes his research will support changes in policy and living spaces.

“We’re hoping to influence policies that make the healthier choice the easiest choice, the default choice, the fun choice,” Saelens says. “Right now, in most of our food and activity environments, the opposite is true: It’s easier and cheaper to get unhealthy food, and easier and cheaper to be sedentary.”

Addressing accessibility

Obesity is a symptom. It's beyond a medical problem; it's a cultural problem."
~ Dr. Lenna Liu

“Obesity is a symptom. It’s beyond a medical problem; it’s a cultural problem,” saysDr. Lenna Liu, an investigator with the research institute’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development and pediatrician at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. “Access to healthy foods and activities is really the fundamental problem here.”

Her research involves building community-based programs to educate families about healthy choices, including the Strong Children, Strong Teens program offered through YMCAs in King and Snohomish Counties (the program name will change to ACT — Actively Change Together — in fall 2010). In 2009, she helped organize the first-ever Washington State Childhood Obesity Summit, where an alliance of organizations, including Children’s, laid the groundwork for shaping legislation to improve access to healthy foods and activities.

Achievable changes

In the clinic, Liu focuses on achievable family-based lifestyle changes, like decreasing the amount of soda and fruit juice children drink. A big part of her job is helping families build and maintain motivation when basic needs like groceries, housing and employment compete with, and often crowd out, health concerns.

“What makes this issue even more challenging is that lower-income kids most impacted by this epidemic have the least access to resources,” Liu said. “I always have to remember that this is a long-term project. None of it is going to happen quickly or easily. It will take a couple of generations for these cultural changes to occur, and it helps to keep that long-range view.”