TUESDAY, Dec. 5, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- It's no secret that American kids eat too much. Now, a new study provides some specific numbers that could help fight the obesity epidemic.
Over a 10-year period, the average child consumed up to 165 calories more than he or she needed each day -- the equivalent of an entire can of soda. And the fattest teens took in as many as 1,000 calories more each day than they needed -- almost as much as two Big Macs.
Many American kids are suffering from an "energy gap," in which they take in more calories than they burn through growth and daily living. And the trend won't be easy to reverse, said the study's lead author, Dr. Y. Claire Wang, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health.
"Closing this energy gap in order to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic will require more than one single intervention," Wang said. "Just panicking or just screaming about how bad the epidemic has become is probably not going to be enough."
An estimated one in three American kids is either obese -- a step beyond overweight -- or in danger of becoming obese, Wang said. And one in eight or nine children is actually obese.
"A typical U.S. teen has gained an excess of 10 pounds over the body weight that is considered normal," Wang said. At the same time, teens haven't gotten taller.
In what is apparently the first study of its kind, Wang and her colleagues tried to determine just how much excess food children are consuming. They examined several federal studies and extrapolated the "energy gap" for different age ranges.
From 1988 to 1994, children aged 2 to 7 consumed between 110 and 165 calories more than they needed each day, resulting in a weight gain -- not related to growth -- of almost a pound a year, the researchers found.
The researchers also found that from 1999 to 2002, obese children 12 to 17 years old took in an average of 678 to 1,017 extra calories a day, amounting to an entire excess weight gain of 58 pounds.
The study is published in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics.
What can be done?
"Prevention is the most important thing," Wang said. Children "start having a small energy gap, then it becomes bigger over time. [We] need to start early and establish healthy habits. It requires more than just one strategy -- everyone has to participate, including the government, community, schools, families, and the food and beverage industries."
As for specific strategies, research suggests that cutting TV viewing by an hour a day could reduce food intake by about 160 calories, Wang said.
Karen A. Donato is coordinator of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's Obesity Education Initiative, and she's familiar with the new study findings. She said the study shows that a relatively small number of calories over time can tip the energy balance toward overweight.
"Parents in particular need to be aware as their children grow that they not consume excessive calories from large portions and sugar-sweetened beverages, and that they remain physically active and not watch a lot of TV," Donato said. "A relatively small number of calories over time can tip the energy balance towards overweight. Doctors need to alert parents that they need to have healthy foods in their home and stay active with their children."
Learn more about childhood obesity from the American Obesity Association.