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BYU team links children's obesity to dietary fat

A team of Brigham Young University researchers has linked obesity in children to consumption of dietary fat.

It seems logical that the more fat one eats, the fatter one will be. That logic has held up in numerous studies conducted on adults and animals in recent years as scholars and the general public have become increasingly focused on health issues. However, few studies have examined the cause of childhood obesity.A recent study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association shows that children who eat fatty foods are more likely to be obese - regardless of factors like physical fitness and parents' body mass - than children who eat complex carbohydrates.

"We probably ought to be focusing on helping our children to eat more fruits and vegetables and grain instead of high-fat foods," said Larry A. Tucker, BYU professor of health promotion and one of the authors of the study. "Most of what children eat is what parents give them.

"It's normal and natural to eat. We're just trying to help people to eat smarter."

Tucker and BYU exercise scientists Gary T. Seljaas and Ronald L. Hager sampled 162 boys and 100 girls ages 9 and 10. Children and their parents filled out questionnaires and were measured for body fat using skinfold methods.

Tucker acknowledged the study has its limitations. Diet composition is not the only factor contributing to obesity, and the study stopped short of establishing a cause-and-effect relationship between fat consumption and obesity in children.

Still, the authors wrote, ". . . the admonition to restrict dietary fat intake and promote complex carbohydrate consumption to prevent the accumulation of excess body fat seems warranted."

While a gram of carbohydrates contains four calories, a gram of fat contains nine. Thus, one can eat more carbohydrates than fat to achieve an equal amount of calorie intake. But that's not the only reason eating carbohydrates is better than eating fat.

Tucker said the body's metabolism adapts to differing levels of dietary carbohydrates and proteins. However, the body has a more difficult time regulating the balance of energy expenditure compared to consumption of dietary fats.

In a sense, the more carbohydrates one eats, the more energy one's body burns. But with fat, it's

not the same.

"The body handles carbohydrates and protein better than it handles fat," Tucker said. "It handles fat by storing it.

"If you're going to overconsume, it's better to do it with complex carbohydrates and protein that fat."

But, Tucker warned, children's regulators for carbohydrate consumption are not perfect. If a child gorges himself or herself on carbohydrates, the child is likely to gain weight.

Studying factors that cause obesity in children is important because several studies have shown that many adult obesity problems begin in childhood. However, research in the area of childhood obesity is not yet extensive enough to determine if the same factors that contribute to adult obesity also cause obesity in children.

But one thing is clear: Children who eat a lot of fat are likely to be fat, no matter what else they do.

"Dietary fat is an important contributor to fat and obesity," Tucker said, "and dietary carbohydrates are . . . healthy."