Press Releases

2006 Releases

Harvard Study Finds Major Energy Gap Contributes to Obesity Among U.S. Teens

For immediate release: December 04, 2006 

Boston, MA -- A new study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) shows that America’s overweight teens consumed an average of 700 to 1,000 calories more than required each day over a 10-year period. This “energy gap”—or the imbalance between the number of calories children consumed each day and the number they required to support normal growth, physical activity, and body function—resulted in an average of 58 extra pounds for overweight teens.

The study, the first to look at the energy gap among children and youth, was published in the December 2006 issue of the journal Pediatrics. The study shows that U.S. children and teens overall consumed an average of 110 to 165 more calories than they required each day. Over a 10-year period, this energy gap led to an excess 10 pounds of body weight on average among all teens.

Previous research in the field estimated that a much smaller energy gap was responsible for the obesity epidemic in U.S. adults. The new analysis focusing on children, however, found a much more serious caloric imbalance than previously recognized in adults.

“Our research indicates that early prevention may be critical,” said Y. Claire Wang, MD, ScD, the HSPH researcher who led the study. “The energy gap becomes bigger and harder to close as kids accumulate more excess weight.” This suggests that strategies to prevent excess weight gain from occurring during childhood may be more effective than attempting to treat overweight teens.

“We must find ways to help kids eat well and move more,” said Tracy Orleans, Ph.D., distinguished fellow and senior scientist at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which sponsored the study. “That means acting now to create environments that support healthy eating and increased physical activity in schools and communities, and at home.”

For the study, researchers examined height and weight data for 5000 children in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) during the period 1988-1994. They projected what the height and weight gains for this group would be 10 years later, based on normal growth patterns, and compared that projection to actual height and weight data from a similar group of teens in the most recent NHANES (1999-2002). Children were defined as overweight (sometimes called obese) if their body mass index was greater than or equal to the 95thpercentile of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) growth charts. For example, a 15-year-old boy who is 5 feet 7 inches tall is considered overweight if he weighs more than 170 pounds; the weight range for boys of this age and height should be 118 to 126 pounds.

Childhood obesity rates in the United States have reached epidemic proportions. In the last four decades, obesity rates have more than tripled for children and adolescents ages 6 to 19. One-third of all children and adolescents in the U.S. are either obese or at risk for becoming obese.

“These data clearly show that no single intervention or effort will be enough to close the energy gap,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Reversing the childhood obesity epidemic will require the best efforts of government, communities, schools, health care providers, families, the food and beverage industries, and others. We all have a role to play in increasing physical activity and improving nutrition for kids.”

Understanding and quantifying the energy gap has important implications for efforts to address the nation’s childhood obesity crisis. The study recommends using a range of strategies to close the energy gap, including:

  • Supporting longer and more frequent physical education classes that require children to be physically active for at least half of the class time. (Having class three times a week instead of once can mean a difference of 240 calories per week for a typical 9-year-old boy.)
  • Reducing the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in schools and at home. (Switching one can of soda for water could mean a difference of 150 calories.)
  • Consuming less fast food. (Eating at fast food restaurants has been associated with an additional 120 calories per day.)
  • Decreasing time spent watching TV as a way to increase physical activity and limit exposure to advertising, which has been associated with increased energy intake. (One hour of TV watching replaced by one hour of slow walking is a difference of 55 calories burned. In addition, reducing TV viewing by one hour is associated with 160 fewer calories consumed per day.)

"Estimating the Energy Gap Among US Children: A Counterfactual Approach," Y. Claire Wang, Steven L. Gortmaker, Arthur M. Sobol, and Karen M. Kuntz, PEDIATRICS Vol. 118 No. 6 December 2006

For further information contact:

Robin Herman, rherman@hsph.harvard.edu, (617) 432-4752

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The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 30 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org.