20 Feb 2024

Chipping away at childhood obesity

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 20 February 2024

A new study that fed supplements to pregnant women suggests we can begin the fight against childhood obesity before babies are even born. 

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Photo: 123RF

Obesity - it's been in the headlines for decades in Aotearoa and the statistics have hardly moved. 

New Zealand has the third highest rate of obesity in the OECD, and the second highest childhood obesity rate.

So what's the key to fixing it?

Today's episode of The Detail looks at new research that may be part of that - in pregnancy, early childhood and Pasifika communities. 

Professor Wayne Cutfield is a paediatric endocrinologist from the University of Auckland. 

He's part of a group that's just released its findings on giving pregnant mothers supplements to combat obesity. 

"Women were recruited prior to getting pregnant - half of them were put on a supplement with six extra ingredients - and the other group - the control group - were just on standard supplements that women get in pregnancy," Cutfield says.

The supplements included vitamins (B2, B12, B6, D), probiotics, and myo-inositol - which helps with insulin resistance - along with standard pregnancy supplementation. 

"What we found is that the mothers who took the supplement prior to getting pregnant and during pregnancy, we've looked now at their children and we've looked out to the age, at the moment, of two and we found that those who were supplemented - their children were less likely to be obese... and they were also gaining weight less rapidly. 

"The obvious question is ... which of the things did this? The answer is we don't know, we're trying to model and understand. It may require later testing."

Cutfield also speaks about how anti-smoking legislation may have had a positive effect on pre-school obesity rates. 

Associate Professor Riz Firestone of Massey University's Research Centre for Hauora and Health works with Pacific families and communities to reduce non-communicable diseases like obesity and diabetes.

The latest statistics from the New Zealand Health Survey show nearly 28 per cent of Pasifika children are classified as obese.

In Pasifika adults, that number soars to 67 percent. 

Firestone has been working on a new research programme with families in Wellington, West Auckland and Tokoroa, where they created a food box along the lines of My Food Bag.

"They developed their own recipes, it was checked over by a nutritionist - so four meals is what they got out of that food box every week for about eight weeks. It was food they were familiar with - it had Pacific flavours."

This food box only cost between $103 and $117 - for six to eight people - and even left the families with leftovers.

Firestone's finalising the report, but preliminary results show the families have lost two percent of their body weight over eight weeks.

"From another study where we looked at working with families, they'd lost up to about six percent of their body weight over a six month period - over a longer period of time.

"I can say it has short term benefits that way." 

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