Today, you’re in charge of reducing childhood obesity. Find out what policies and interventions can close the Energy Gap!
One in 3 children and adolescents in America are obese, a rate that has tripled just over a generation’s time. If nothing changes, this may be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents and grandparents. To reverse the childhood obesity epidemic, we need policy and behavioral strategies to shape a healthier environment for our children to encourage healthy eating and active living. However, there is a lack of a common metric to measure the relative impact of different strategies.
Our Caloric Calculator is a user-friendly tool that allows decision-makers in a broad range of roles—including policymakers, teachers, administrators, community leaders, and parents—to explore effective, evidence-based options. By “implementing” one or more interventions at home or in schools, such as adding more physical activity or changing dietary intake, you will see the impact of each intervention on the energy balance at the population level on the daily basis. You can visualize what it will take to get to the early 1970s level of obesity by closing the “Energy Gap”—the imbalance between the number of calories consumed each day and the number of calories required to support healthy growth.
Our focus is on obesity prevention at the population level—not weight loss—because prevention is key. All the obesity prevention strategies catalogued here address behavioral drivers of energy surplus in U.S. children’s lives today, such as increasing the amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity via school PE classes, or decreasing the amount of unhealthy foods being consumed.
The selection of interventions involved a comprehensive and collaborative review of the academic literature to find the best available evidence. After a careful review of each study included, we extracted information that allowed us to extrapolate and calculate the average caloric impact of the interventions at a population level. To ensure reliability of estimates, we presented caloric values calculated from studies that included biometric measures, such as body weight, body mass index, accelerometer readings, or heart rate monitors.
The tool incorporates the latest nationally-representative data (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) on the prevalence of obesity and baseline characteristics of our nation’s children and youth in preschool (ages 2-5), elementary school (ages 6-11), middle school (ages 12-14), and high school (ages 15-18). Since boys and girls at different ages burn calories at different rates, we accounted for the differences in body weight and the basal metabolic rate using published equations. We also referenced additional studies that hold potential in impacting children’s dietary and activity behavior, but do not yet have sufficient evidence to show an impact on calories consumed or expended. The tool will also serve as a starting platform to engage the larger research community to share new findings for future inclusions of promising programs and policies to influence youths to eat better and be more active.
The tool makes it easier to compare the relative impacts of making changes to local, state, or federal policies in addressing childhood obesity. Given limited time and resources for evaluation of current and past interventions—not to mention the large body of scientific literature available—we aim to provide a centralized and approachable tool that synthesizes the best existing evidence on approaches that hold the most promise in changing the face of the epidemic. After all, it is easier and more cost-effective to prevent obesity early on than to treat it later in life. If we can address the root causes of childhood obesity as a community, it can produce changes in dietary, physical activity, and other behaviors that develop into long-term lifestyle habits.
Y. Claire Wang, MD, ScD, is Assistant Professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health with training in modeling and epidemiology. Expanding on her signature work on the Energy Gap, she created the Calculator to facilitate the evaluation of strategies needed to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.
Amber Hsiao, MPH, is a research coordinator at the Mailman School. With public health training and working experiences with governmental and non-profit organizations, she leads the evidence review and design effort behind the development of the Calculator.
Michael Slaven has over 10 years of experience using technology to improve environments for teaching and learning. He is the digital architect behind the design and functionalities of the tool.
Keturah Childs is an 8th grade math teacher in New Jersey with a passion for understanding the role of public health obesity interventions. She is interning with the team and is the voice behind the Calculator video guide.