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Prevent childhood obesity with a Mediterranean-style diet

a variety of fruits and vegetables in a carrying basket with a loaf of rustic bread

A study in Spain (Int J Obes 2020;44:1906-1917) suggests that children whose diets more closely match a Mediterranean-style diet at the age of 4 were less likely to be overweight or obese at the age of 8.

The news comes from an analysis of an ongoing study of Spanish children known as The Infancia y Media Ambiente (Environment and Childhood) project conducted in several regions of Spain. Pregnant women were recruited to participate before their children were born - between 2003 and 2008.

When the children were 4 years of age, the child's height, weight, and waist circumference were measured and their parents responded to a detailed dietary questionnaire customized for children of that age group.

Four years later the measuring process was repeated.

The authors used the responses to the dietary questionnaire to assign the children a modified Mediterranean Diet score, one that did not include alcohol. The maximum score for this modified Med Diet score was 16 - the authors considered a score of 0-6 to be low adherence, 7-10 to be medium adherence, and 11-16 to be high adherence to a Mediterranean Diet.

The authors focused on those children who were not overweight or obese at the age of 4 but became overweight or obese at the age of 8. How did their Mediterranean Diet scores compare with those children who did not become overweight or obese?

In their analysis, the authors took into account the mothers' age, social class, pre-pregnancy Body Mass Index, breast feeding duration, and other factors. When they looked at the group of 4-year-olds, they could find no relationship between a child's Med Diet score and their Body Mass Index.

However, when they compared the 8-year-olds with their 4-year-old selves, they found that the 4-year-olds who had a high Mediterranean Diet score were 62% less likely to become overweight, 84% less likely to become obese, and 60% less likely to develop abdominal obesity than those 4-year-olds with a low Mediterranean Diet score.

When the authors took a closer look at the childrens' consumption, they found that the Mediterranean Diet element that had the greatest impact seemed to be a higher intake of vegetables, with reduced land animal protein coming in second.

What this means for you

Help your kids have a solid start on a lifetime of healthy eating by making sure that eating a variety of healthy foods - including lots of fruits and vegetables - is the norm in your household. Serve generous portions of vegetables at every meal and offer fruit or nuts as a snack instead of chips, candy, or crackers.

First posted: February 3, 2021