In this cross-sectional baseline analysis we examined healthy-lifestyle behaviors of overweight and obese children compared to healthy weight children enrolled in the CHANGE study. We found that the prevalence of overweight and obesity in school-aged children in the rural areas of California, Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina ranged from 37% to 60%, with children living in Kentucky having the highest prevalence. We also found that children from these areas do not meet key obesity prevention recommendations such as screen time, sleep, and consumption of fruits, vegetables and nonfat/low-fat milk. Although we expected obese children to be more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, we found the opposite to be true whereby parents of children who are obese report that their child is more likely to eat ≥ 2 servings of vegetables, drink less whole milk, and been told by a doctor that they are overweight or obese. It is possible that these groups of respondent parents were highly aware of their child’s weight status and have been advised to change their health behaviors. Perhaps given the opportunity to participate in an intervention study in combination with a physician recommendation could have resulted in actual behavior change.
The prevalence of obesity in our sample was 29%, which is higher than the national average for 6–11 year old children (18-20%) [1
]. The percentage of children in our sample that were at or above the 97th
percentile was also much higher than nationally reported data (23% vs. 14.5%) and higher than the prevalence reported for ethnic minorities. Compared to other studies completed in rural areas of America, the percentage of overweight and obese children in our sample is similar ranging from 47-54% of overweight and obesity in the different states [3
] although studies have not further classified children at or above the 97th
percentile. Mimicking national trends, but clearly exceeding them, this rural sample has a high percentage of overweight and obese children, particularly for children above the 97th
Our finding that most children regardless of weight status are not meeting health recommendations associated with obesity prevention is consistent with prior research. One study with a nationally representative sample of 2,964 children ages 4–12 years found that 65.0% (95% CI, 61.4% to 68.5%) had higher than recommended screen-time exposure, defined as ≥2 hours of combined screen-time per day [22
]. Our results are the same with 65% of parents reporting that their child views more than 2 hours of screen-time per day. This represents a large proportion of children who are engaging in sedentary activities and being exposed to advertisements of high-calorie, low-nutrient-density food and beverage products. We also found that almost three quarters of the children’s parents reported that their child sleeps less than the recommended 10 hours per night. The average number of hours of sleep reported by the parents in this sample was 9.4; a poll directed by the National Sleep Foundation among 1,437 adults showed the same results in that they reported that their children slept an average of 9.4 hours per night [23
Approximately 40% of parents reported that their child eats less than 2 servings of fruits and vegetables per day compared to the average 2 servings of fruits and 2.5 servings of vegetables that are recommended [24
]. This is also similar to what others have found in that most children do not consume the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables to support a healthy diet. A 2010 study of 5–11 year old children (n=3761) enrolled in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that on average, children consume 1.4 servings of fruits and 2.4 servings of vegetables per day [25
]. Another recent study reported that households below 350% of the federal poverty level were at higher risk for consuming energy-dense fruits and vegetables (i.e. fruit juice and french fries) [24
]. Overall, our findings suggest that most children do not meet recommendations for physical activity, screen time and diet. Our study shows that rural children over consume calories from soda and sugar sweetened beverages, which is similar to findings from other studies. Almost all of the parents reported that their child consumes at least one soda and one sugar-sweetened beverage per day. Given that each additional 8-oz serving of sugar-sweetened beverage can correspond to an increase of 106 calories per day [26
], rural children in the CHANGE Study may be consuming up to 200 discretionary calories per day from beverages. If this is over and above caloric requirement for normal growth and development, it could help explain the high rates of overweight and obesity seen in the population.
Finally, we found that obese children compared to those who are within a healthy weight range are more likely to report engaging in some healthier behaviors such as eating more servings of vegetables per day, and drinking less whole milk. Additionally, these children were more likely to have been told by a physician that they were overweight or obese. It is clear that differences across states and racial/ethnic groups exist, however we still found significant results adjusting for these important variables. Although our findings were unexpected and appear to be operating in the opposite direction, it may be that this possibly biased group of parents and children were already aware and motivated to improve health behaviors at the commencement of the study (the 36% which responded). Perhaps that by just enrolling in an intervention study in combination with receiving recommendations from their physicians; these parents of obese children had already started to improve their health behaviors. According to the transtheoretical model of behavioral change [20
], this group of parents may have been at the contemplation or preparation stage and enrolling in a study helped them move to an action stage to engage in new behaviors. These motivated parents of overweight and obese children are most likely being influenced by the increased awareness of obesity in their surroundings. A qualitative study of ninth graders in rural Appalachia found that the students were quite familiar with the problem of childhood obesity. Their awareness about the rising rates of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, accompanied by personal experiences of affected family members in this region, created a fear about becoming obese [12
]. Another qualitative study completed with fourth grade students, teachers and parents in rural Appalachia found similar results in that there was a heightened concern for childhood obesity and they supported the idea of their schools doing more to improve diet and physical activity. We did find, however, that parents of obese children were less likely to discuss fruit and vegetable consumption a lot/sometimes vs. never. Conceivably by being in an action stage phase of behavior change, they engaged in less conversation around fruits and vegetables as their children were already beginning to change their behaviors and did not need this extra reminder. It is also possible that parents of obese children are misreporting; literature suggests that weight status influences the accuracy of dietary reports made by children and their parents [19
]. Parents of these obese children may be over reporting healthy behaviors and underreporting unhealthy behaviors.
Although most of the literature has shown that obese children are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, we believe these preliminary findings may be an indication of an increased awareness around childhood obesity among certain families and their doctors in this region. In addition, nationally representative data from 2009–2010 show that obesity rates have stabilized [28
]; it is possible that many of the community wide interventions and awareness campaigns to reduce overweight and obesity are having an effect in these more obese families. This shows promise for future interventions to have a greater impact on improving health behaviors when individuals are targeted at the right stage of change. If individual level changes are indeed occurring, it points towards the need to make improvements within the greater environment (access to healthy food and recreation centers) in order to successfully curb the obesity epidemic in rural areas.
Some limitations of this study are worth noting. First, this is a cross-sectional analysis therefore assumptions about causality cannot be made. Second, parents in this study were proxy reporters of some of their children’s health behaviors; hence they are prone to error, particularly since they are not with their children during school hours. However, studies provide support for the use of parent responses in observational studies of children [29
]. Lastly, the response rate to our parent survey was low and those parents who responded to the survey significantly differed in the following ways: those who lived in Kentucky were less likely to respond compared to those living in California (OR=0.5, 95% CI 0.3-0.6) and those that lived in Mississippi were more likely to respond compared to those living in California (OR=1.5, 95% CI 1.1-2.0); and parents who had daughters were less likely to respond (OR=0.8, 95% CI 0.6-0.96). Within this group we still see a high percentage of overweight and obese children with varying degrees of socioeconomic backgrounds and race/ethnicities.