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13 July 2012

Big Brother Watching Teens’ Diet and Play

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A new pan-European project aims to find the determinants of eating behaviour and physical activity of adolescents replaced in the family context 

“The key factors we are interested in are food choice and physical activity,” Wolfgang Ahrens, an epidemiologist from the University of Bremen, Germany tells Ahrens, who is also the joint-leader of the programme, adds: “Are the most influential factors the environment or is it their parents? Or, as they enter puberty, is it their peers?”

The EU-funded I.Family is very much like a big brother study to a previous European study called Idefics. While the former will follow 16,000 10-15 years old adolescents, the latter followed the same children from the age of five to 10. This cohort study will record biological information ready to be mined, such as gene expression of disease markers, in addition to the vast pool of data already available including body fat distribution and data from health-related questionnaires.

I.Family is also a ‘big brother’ study, in a different sense. For the first time, scientists intend to combine GPS satellite data with accelerometers—already used in Idefics—to form a ‘movability score’. This is like an index for capability of an environment to be conductive to health through recreational space availability and accessibility. “If you live in an environment that shapes your behaviour towards being sedentary, it’s very difficult to act against this,” says Ahrens.

A pilot study has already been completed in Delmenhorst, just outside Bremen, Germany. If the ‘movability score’ is successful, politicians and policy-makers will have a concrete usable metric to help them implement future policies, according to Ahrens.

In addition, the project aims to focus on a child’s parents and peers as influencers of eating behaviour, explains Garrath Williams, a philosophy lecturer at Lancaster University, UK, and a project partner responsible for ethics and policy issues. His team will collaborate with consumer research specialists at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, to engage with lower socioeconomic groups who are typically more difficult to reach. “It’s really important from a policy point-of-view,” he says.

Researchers of other cohort studies welcome this new project’s comparative potential due to its geographical spread. “In general international comparisons can be valuable if you get heterogeneity of exposures [to different diets for example],” Andy Ness, Co-Director the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) based at the University of Bristol, UK, tells His own work provided genetic and environmental information pertaining to the health of 14,000 British children. “Exposures in different countries will be socially patterned in a different way and allow you to draw more robust causal inferences,” he adds.

Yet Tam Fry, Chairman of the UK Child Growth Foundation, says the project is a costly way to find out what we already know. “We know that most children have made up their minds about what they’re going to eat and what their lifestyle is by age 11.” Fry, who is also spokesman for the UK National Obesity Forum, believes cohort studies such as the ALSPAC study, have already provided very good data that is not worth repeating across Europe. “What we’ve got to do is put the money where we think we can make real benefit.”

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