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A healthy foundation

UTHealth public health expert seeks to remedy childhood obesity

The grocery store poses a familiar challenge to parents of young children. Aisles of unhealthy food sit right at a child’s eye level, dazzling them with eye-catching packaging and promises of sugar-filled delights. With such readily available junk food and decreased activity levels across the United States, children as young as one face the rising threat of obesity.

“If we don’t take care of obesity in childhood, we are setting up young adults for the risk of poor lifelong health,” says Sarah Messiah, PhD.

Associated with increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions, obesity now affects nearly one in five children, who often struggle with their weight for decades. In addition, children from certain populations—including low-income and minority groups who lack access to health resources—face greater hurdles in maintaining healthy weights.

Because these children have health needs that often go unmet, Messiah and her team are working to develop and implement evidence-based programs to promote healthy weights in communities across Texas. From school activities to programs in health clinics, these initiatives are helping children become more active in their daily lives.

“Even simple programs like park-based after-school activities can make a difference,” Messiah says. “Part of the challenge is ensuring these resources are accessible and affordable.”

By creating interventions that are free or low cost, Messiah and her team are working to reach low-resource communities. But in order to solve the growing obesity problem throughout the United States, interventions may not be enough.

“Prevention is key for ensuring healthy childhood weights,” Messiah says. “This is a big challenge because we can’t simply avoid food—we have to eat to survive.”

Children who learn to exercise and eat nutritious foods from a young age are more likely to grow up at healthy weights, but kids don’t exist in a vacuum. The number one risk factor for childhood obesity is having parents who did not learn healthy habits themselves and also have obesity.

“We have to work with entire families and communities to ensure younger generations learn how to be healthy,” Messiah says. “By helping both parents and children develop better nutrition and exercise habits, our prevention work can have a much broader impact.”

In 2020, the obesity epidemic collided with the COVID-19 pandemic, making life more complicated for children and adults trying to achieve healthy weights. With activity programs closing and more people relying on food for comfort, obesity levels have risen even higher, with potentially drastic health consequences.

“Obesity quickly emerged as a risk factor for severe COVID-19 illness,” says Messiah, who is part of the UTHealth COVID-19 Center of Excellence. “Because obesity often leads to other chronic health conditions, it is no surprise that COVID-19 has a greater effect on people with obesity.”

As a result, the pandemic’s impact has put a spotlight on Messiah’s efforts to solve obesity during a child’s early years.

“To really advance public health in the United States, we have to help people with obesity,” Messiah says. “And that begins in childhood, when even small interventions can have a tremendous impact.”

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