MARQUETTE - Programs to curb childhood obesity would be more effective if they were gender-specific, researchers say.
Childhood obesity has tripled in the last decades, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and representatives from the Marquette County Health Department say local trends have been similar.
What is worse, Michigan ranks above the national average, with 12 percent of children considered obese. But if the numbers of overweight and obese kids are combined, they jump to 26 percent of girls and 35 percent of boys, according to Kids Count, a data center that tracks the status of children by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Gwinn Area Community Schools students sit down for lunch last June. Experts say local schools are succeeding in spreading the message of healthy eating to children, but said they should start targeting the message toward parents, as well. (Journal file photo by Kyle Whitney)
"The best way to target healthier behaviors may be to have a different message geared toward boys and girls," said Elizabeth Jackson, assistant professor of medicine at University of Michigan Health System.
"We find that some dairy consumption, for example milk consumption, is related to less obesity in girls. The interesting thing is that we don't find the same result in boys," she said.
The study said drinking milk is an independent predictor of healthier weight.
The research results come from 2,048 sixth-grade students in about 20 Project Healthy Schools in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Shiawassee County and Ypsilanti.
Focus is often placed on imparting health-related messages on children as soon as possible in school, but the MCHD is hoping for an even more proactive approach locally.
While the department is looking to encourage healthy eating through the school system, they are also hoping to get the message to parents, as well.
"Rather than targeting the children, we're going to start targeting the parents," said MCHD Community and Clinical Services Director Corrine Brownell. "That really is starting to look like the shift that is coming from the state. Look more at the parents."
Through the aid of the WIC program, a statewide nutritional program focusing on women, infants and children, the MCHD is attempting to record body mass index information for children in the county.
The data will help to establish a baseline from which officials can judge health patterns, according to Brownell.
Jackson said another important step on the road to more healthy youth may be to promote different physical activities for boys and girls, who enjoy physical activities in different ways, contributing to different levels of obesity.
Michele Nikolai, a clinical nutrition manager at Sparrow Health System, said, "Boys may respond better to physical activity interventions that promote strength, and girls may avoid physical activity that makes them sweat or appear physically awkward in front of others.
"So girls may respond better to physical activity interventions that are with other girls or are less intense, such as walking, dancing and yoga."
She said messages must be tailored by gender and to the individual.
Some researchers are moving to target child obesity from a gender-specific angle.
For example, Michigan State University nursing researchers are using a $3.6 million federal grant to design a school-based physical activity program that addresses physical and personal barriers that prevent young girls from getting the exercise they need.
According to federal estimates, less than 4 percent of middle school-aged girls meet physical activity recommendations, and 3.2 million of them are overweight or obese.
"This is a critical age for intervention," said Lorraine Robbins, a MSU associate professor of nursing who's leading the project called Girls Only Activity for Life.
"The older girls get, the less moderate and vigorous activity they take part in, which leads to further weight gain and puts them at greater risk for chronic illness," Robbins said.
The MSU project will be conducted in 24 schools -12 intervention schools and 12 control schools-over three years.
Jackson's research also indicates that two behaviors may cause obesity in both boys and girls. They are regularly eating school lunches and watching more than two hours of TV per day.
However, gender-specific intervention programs face challenges.
"It is hard to separate the girls and boys in schools, and we need to consider about other personal factors," said Jackson, "You can let boys and girls think about different things they may enjoy doing to keep healthy and provide more choices for them."
Wen Guo, a researcher specializing in obesity among newborn to 3-year-old children at MSU's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, said other factors also may influence obesity.
"Studies show relationships but don't reveal causes. Good diet and physical activity are the most important things to achieve the energy balance for healthy weight. If we are talking about a bigger picture, school lunch programs, nutrition education and social media influences are also important factors that should be considered," Guo said.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.