FRC News

Dr. Barbara Fiese discusses the complex nature of childhood obesity

Miranda DellaMaria
6/9/2016  1:30 pm

Recently, Dr. Barbara Fiese, Director of the Family Resiliency Center and Professor in HDFS, sat down College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences to discuss the complexities of childhood obesity. “Eating habits start to develop at birth,” Dr. Fiese says, emphasizing the importance of nutrition early on in life. However, there are several different factors that can contribute to childhood obesity, including, “genetic heritage, individual biology, the types of foods we eat, the access we have to food within our own communities, the kinds of physical activity we engage in,” and more. “For some children, exposure to targeted food advertising and regulation about food and food policy also come into play when we try to understand healthy eating habits,” Dr. Fiese also points out.

Parents, of course, have an influence on their children’s nutrition. However, their connection is also more complex than one might initially think. “Most parents are committed to good health for their kids, and are doing the best that they can,” Dr. Fiese says. “In some cases, parents underestimate the weight of their children and might not really know how much their child weighs. And this can be a very sensitive topic.” We often think fast growth in children is a good thing, but too much weight gained too quickly could lead to complications. Dr. Fiese talks about how important it is to pay attention to growth charts and keep regular appointments with pediatricians in order to ensure children’s weight gain is standard for their height and age. “It is much easier to prevent unhealthy weight gain in children than it is to treat.”

Dr. Fiese emphasizes how important it is to help children learn how to define what hunger actually means for them. “We really want them to pay attention to their own satiety cues and distinguish Do you feel full? from Do you want more food? And also to disentangle these cues from the emotions that they have,” she says. “Food is a very powerful emotional connector, and we want to build that in positive ways.” Parents can help their children learn to understand this difference by giving their children the language to communicate when they are hungry and full, and by setting up regular routines for when their children eat.

Children start to express their desires and opinions for certain foods over others at around ages two or three, which can sometimes lead to picky eating difficulties. Sometimes it can be difficult to convince your children to try new, healthy foods, but Dr. Fiese maintains that repeated exposure to new foods can help your children develop new tastes. “Research has indicated that it takes between fifteen and twenty exposures of a new food for children to latch onto it,” Dr. Fiese says, “but most parents give up after five or six tries.” Consistency is key in overcoming picky eating, and can lead to healthier eating habits in the long run. Dr. Fiese points out that it also may be helpful to get creative with healthy foods, putting salad dressing on certain vegetables, or cutting the food into interesting shapes could help convince children to try a food they previously refused.

Another huge factor in childhood development is sleep. The amount of sleep a child should get varies by age, and Dr. Fiese recommends checking the American Sleep Foundation’s website where you can check exactly how much sleep your child should be getting. “We’re learning more and more the importance of sleep,” said Dr. Fiese, “not only in how it relates to healthy weight, but how it relates to brain development.”

There are clearly many different factors that can lead to childhood obesity, and Dr. Fiese touches on many of them in her ACES Podcast. To hear the entire podcast here, please visit