Doing the math to fight childhood obesity

Dieters often use online calorie calculators to stay true to their weight-loss plan. Translating the concept to the population health arena, researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health created the Caloric Calculator to help policymakers, school district administrators, and others assess the potential impact of health policy choices on childhood obesity.

Select a target population (middle-school-age boys, for example) and the Caloric Calculator tells you the percentage of this group who are obese (18%) and the average daily calorie cuts necessary to meet two goals: returning them to obesity levels for that population in the year 2000 and the early 1970s (109 and 237 kcal, respectively). The user can then choose from a menu of 14 interventions: 30 minutes of daily PE time, for example, would reduce 49 kcal; eliminating one can of soda would cut an additional 136 kcal; and restricting television time by 60 minutes would cut another 106 kcal. Each time an intervention is added, the Calculator displays a graph illustrating the cumulative impact on obesity goals. In this example, both goals are met.

"While childhood obesity can sometimes seem like an insurmountable problem, there are many proven interventions that can make a difference. The Caloric Calculator shows that, when implemented in combination, they add up to what is needed," says Claire Wang, MD, ScD, Assistant Professor in the Department of & Management, who led the development of the tool.

While the Caloric Calculator is geared for policymakers, it may also prove useful to parents and teachers who want to be informed about the relative merits of ways to fight childhood obesity in their community.

In developing the Calculator, Dr. Wang and colleagues conducted an extensive review of scientific literature on , dietary, and other preventive interventions to estimate their impact on children's "energy gap"—the difference between the number of calories consumed each day and the number of calories required to support normal growth and physical activity. Excess weight gain occurs when energy intake exceeds energy expended over a period of time, explains Dr. Wang.

"One of our goals with the Calorie Calculator is to encourage more researchers to use calories as a measure for the effectiveness of obesity-related programs and policies," she says. "This will allow us to add new menu items to the Calculator, increasing the options for fighting the epidemic of childhood obesity."

"The Caloric Calculator quickly shows you that not all policy changes are equal—some strategies can make a major dent in childhood obesity risk… and others not so much," says Steven Gortmaker, PhD, Professor of the Practice of Health Sociology, Harvard School of Public Health. "This tool should be required when policymakers are considering their choices."

Currently, one in three children and adolescents are obese. The government's Healthy People 2020 initiative seeks to reduce the overall childhood obesity level to 14.6% by 2020. In order to meet this goal, an average American child would need to reduce 64 calories per day, either by reducing calories intake or by increasing physical activity, according to research by Dr. Wang.

The Caloric Calculator is entered into the Challenge, an online competition administered by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Funding for developing the tool was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Related Stories

Children's consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages

Jun 02, 2008

A recent study published in Pediatrics and led by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health found that sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are an increasingly large part of children and teens' diets. ...

Recommended for you

Gut bacteria promote obesity in mice

7 hours ago

A species of gut bacteria called Clostridium ramosum, coupled with a high-fat diet, may cause animals to gain weight. The work is published this week in mBio, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiol ...

An apple a day could keep obesity away

17 hours ago

Scientists at Washington State University have concluded that nondigestible compounds in apples – specifically, Granny Smith apples – may help prevent disorders associated with obesity. The study, thought ...

Boosting purchasing power to lower obesity rates

Sep 25, 2014

In January, as one of the first major initiatives of the Academic Vision, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity will move to UConn from Yale University. The move will allow Rudd faculty to expand their work and build ...

Note to young men: Fat doesn't pay

Sep 23, 2014

Men who are already obese as teenagers could grow up to earn up to 18 percent less than their peers of normal weight. So says Petter Lundborg of Lund University, Paul Nystedt of Jönköping University and ...

Waistlines of US adults continue to increase

Sep 16, 2014

The prevalence of abdominal obesity and average waist circumference increased among U.S. adults from 1999 to 2012, according to a study in the September 17 issue of JAMA.

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

TheGhostofOtto1923
3.9 / 5 (15) Aug 15, 2012
I thought I'd say something offensive for a change... The fat stupid lazy people are the ones who would normally tend to fall to predation in the wild.

Like twigs, dead leaves, and underbrush in a forest they accumulate and, if not purged periodically, threaten the entire forest with disease and conflagration. Perhaps genomes tend to deteriorate without stress.

Another Reason that wars, famines, and epidemics are Staged - they serve to keep humanity healthy. Augustine spoke to this when referred to the crucible and refining gold. The bible describes this process as 'separating wheat from chaff'.

Just because it is horrible does not mean by a long shot, that it is not True.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.9 / 5 (15) Aug 15, 2012
"20 Death and Destruction[b] are never satisfied,
    and neither are human eyes.
21 The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold,
    but people are tested by their praise.
22 Though you grind a fool in a mortar,
    grinding them like grain with a pestle,
    you will not remove their folly from them."
Proverbs27

-But since this is the 21th century and we are reading medicalexpress on the Internet, perhaps we can fix fat, stupid, lazy people. Perhaps war is no longer needed, nor the religions which are Used to drive the people to fight them.
Estevan57
2.2 / 5 (13) Aug 16, 2012
Your Nazi roots are showing.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.9 / 5 (15) Aug 17, 2012
Your Nazi roots are showing.
Perhaps you are only saying this because you are fat, stupid, and/or lazy? In Nazi Germany, per hitlers 16 Points, these things were all illegal.