IT HAS LONG BEEN disheartening but true about fat: Overweight kids are likely to become overweight adults.
But in a study that obesity experts characterize as "good news," University of Pittsburgh researchers report that children can succeed in taking off weight and keeping it off over the long haul if their parents get involved with them in the weight-loss effort.
"There is hope for families who can work together in solving the problem," said psychologist Leonard H. Epstein, lead researcher for the study, published in today's Journal of the American Medical Association.
In an editorial accompanying the published report, Philadelphia obesity experts Dr. Albert Stunkard and Dr. Robert Berkowitz say the study's findings were surprising because experience had shown that "fat children grow into fat adults" and that "weight lost in treatment programs is promptly regained."
While cautioning that further research was needed, Stunkard and Berkowitz said the Pittsburgh study offered the "first evidence that treatment of obesity in childhood can produce effects that persist into young adulthood."
They said the study also was important because it demonstrated that weight-loss programs did not stunt the height of children. Previous short-term studies had suggested that dieting could slow the rate of a child's growth.
About one in every five children in this country is overweight. Obesity experts say weight problems among children are increasing. They blame the increase on the fact that children watch more TV, exercise less and eat a diet loaded with fat.
In a 10-year project believed to be the longest-running of its kind, Epstein's research team tracked the progress of 75 obese children and their parents who had enrolled initially in any one of three different short-term weight-loss groups. The children were at least 20 percent overweight for their age and height, and each had an obese parent willing to attend the treatment program, which consisted of eight weekly meetings, followed by six monthly meetings.
All the participants were given a low-fat diet and exercise program to follow, but a different behavior modification program was set up for each group.
Berkowitz said in an interview that the finding that weight loss could be both safe and long-lasting "should help us intensify our efforts in intervening in children."