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By Charnicia E. Huggins

Written by: Staff
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NEW YORK, May 2 (Reuters) Consuming one less soda or candy bar and walking an extra 2,000 steps every day may help prevent excessive weight gain in children, researchers report.

The findings, presented Sunday during the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco, are ''really good news for families'' in light of the widely-reported obesity epidemic among children, said Dr James O Hill of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

''With some very small changes you can begin to push back against childhood obesity,'' he told Reuters Health.

Researchers have targeted physical inactivity and diets high in fats and sugar as potential factors contributing to the epidemic of childhood obesity, yet there remains a lack of child-appropriate and effective strategies to address children's ballooning waistlines.

Hill and his team investigated the effectiveness of the America on the Move Foundation's, Families on the Move Program designed to prevent excess weight gain in children. A total of 216 families, all of which had at least one overweight child, aged 7 to 14 years, were assigned to the on-the-move programme or to a comparison group.

The 111 families in the intervention group were instructed to make two lifestyle changes: increase their physical activity by walking an extra 2,000 steps per day, and eliminate 100 calories from their daily diet by using the sugar substitute, Splenda, or Splenda-containing beverages in place of regular sugar. The comparison group of 105 families were told to self-monitor their usual physical activity levels and diet.

By the end of the six-month study, children in both groups had experienced decreases in their average body mass index -- a measure of weight that takes height into consideration.

Yet, roughly two in three children who participated in the Families on the Move Programme were able to maintain or lower their weight simply by reducing their calories by less than the equivalent of an eight-ounce soda, according to Hill, and by walking about a mile more than usual every day.

In contrast, nearly half of the children in the comparison group showed increases in their body mass index, study findings indicate.

While the study participants were encouraged to use Splenda, similar results may be obtained among families who use ''anything that reduces sugar or anything that reduces fat,'' Hill said, adding that adults who participated in the programme ''didn't gain weight either.'' Participation in the programme ''didn't prevent all of the excessive weight,'' Hill emphasised, and did not lead to ''huge changes'' in weight either. ''We're talking about a small change that can have a small positive impact,'' he said, noting that, in many cases, drastic reductions in weight are usually not maintained anyway.

''I think a small change approach is the only way we're going to get a handle on childhood obesity,'' Hill said.

The study was funded by McNeil Nutritionals, LLC, the makers of Splenda, and by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

For more information about the national, non-profit America on the Move Foundation, which was co-founded by Hill, or about the Families on the Move Programme, visit americaonthemove.org.

REUTERS SHB HT0850

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