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Overweight Teens Eat Less But Weigh More, Study Finds

Posted on September 12, 2012

Photo by USDA, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

A study published Monday September 10 in Pediatrics finds that while younger overweight or obese children report higher calorie intake than their healthy-weight peers, older overweight or obese children report lower calorie intake than their healthy-weight peers. Asheley Cockrell Skinnder, PhD, Michael J. Steiner, MD, and Eliana M. Perrin, MD, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2001 to 2008. NHANES surveys a representative group of the U.S. population on an annual basis to gain information about various demographic and health-related topics, including physical measurements.

NHANES measures daily calorie intake through two separate 24 food consumption recalls. The researchers then used BMI data from participants to compare the food consumption habits of children and teens with their weight status. The findings were surprising, with overweight and obese children under 8 reporting only slightly higher calorie intake than their healthy-weight or underweight peers. Beginning at age 6 for girls and 10 for boys, however, overweight and obese children reported consuming less calories than their healthy-weight or underweight peers.

The authors give three potential explanations for these findings. The first is that when children have increased caloric intake at a young age and become overweight, the obesity becomes self-perpetuating and kids tend to stay within the same weight category in later childhood and adolescence due to metabolic changes. The second is that overweight and obese children may have lower levels of physical activity than healthy-weight children, and thus need fewer calories to maintain body weight. Finally, they consider that these findings might be skewed due to underreporting of caloric intake among overweight and obese children, which has been found in previous studies.

The study suggests that the key focus of programs preventing childhood obesity should be very early in a child’s life, with a focus on providing infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with age appropriate caloric intake and encouraging physical activity. The findings also suggest that helping older children and adolescents who are already overweight or obese may be more difficult than previously thought, as they would have to eat significantly less than healthy-weight peers.

Several Schubert Center faculty associates conduct research on childhood obesity. Ellen Rome, MD, MPH studies eating disorders and obesity among adolescents. Leona Cuttler, MD, researches childhood obesity and diabetes. Elaine Borawski, PhD, studies physical activity related interventions aimed at preventing or reducing childhood and adult obesity.

Read the study.

Read an NPR summary of the study.

Read ScienceDaily’s report on the study.

Page last modified: March 24, 2014