Study Finds Diabetes Drug Used To Treat Weight Gain In Children A Temporary Solution

As troubling trends go, few match the kind of potential long-term health risk posed to the U.S. population as childhood obesity. During the last 30 years, the number of children who meet the qualifications for obesity has more than doubled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, increasing from seven percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010.

Currently, one-third of all children between the ages of six to 19 are either obese or overweight. Children suffering from obesity have a higher risk of developing a range of immediate health conditions, including cardiovascular disease – such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol – prediabetes, sleep apnea, joint and bone problems, and low self-esteem.

Overweight children also have a higher risk of developing a number of chronic long-term health problems that include heart disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, and stroke.

Considering the complications caused by weight gain, it’s not surprising that concerned parents would try a variety of solutions to help their child lose weight.

One such solution that has grown in popularity in recent years is the use of the diabetes drug metformin, which has been shown to help obese kids without type 2 diabetes lose weight. However, the results of a new study suggest that while metformin may help obese children lose some additional weight, it isn’t significantly greater than the weight kids could lose by making lifestyle changes, such as increasing the amount of exercise they receive and eating a more balanced diet.

While metformin has received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for use as a treatment for type 2 diabetes in children and adults for the last decade, a growing number of doctors have started prescribing the drug to children without diabetes as a treatment for obesity.

The results of this study were published in the December issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association: Pediatrics.

A Better Solution

As part of the study, researchers at Oregon Health & Science University examined the data provided by 14 clinical trails that included almost 1,000 children between the ages of 10 and 16 years of age. All kids involved in the study were either obese or overweight.

Based on adult studies, a five to 10 percent weight reduction is necessary to decrease an obese individual’s risk of developing a serious obesity related health issues. However based on the study’s results, children taking metformin averaged less than a five percent reduction in weight.

Researchers involved in the study agreed that the rise of childhood obesity ranks as one of the country’s most pressing national health issues, but that more sustainable methods of weight loss are needed, rather than relying on the unintended effects of medication designed to treat diabetes.

In addition to helping treat and prevent diabetes, metformin causes weight loss as a result of drug’s ability to treat insulin resistance, a condition that results in cells in the body becoming less responsive to the hormone insulin, which the body uses to control blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance is one of the first steps towards the development of type 2 diabetes.

Metformin causes slight weight loss by reducing the amount of insulin the body produces and by improving insulin resistance. That weight loss occurs is a unintended side effect of the drug – says researches – and to use metformin as a weight loss pill for obese children not only misuses the drug’s true purpose, it can also prevent children and parents from making the lifestyle changes necessary to achieve sustained weight loss.

Improved Lifestyle the Key

For children or adults dealing with excess weight gain, the most effective long-term strategies for losing weight involve making significant changes to their diet and exercise routines.

In the conclusions to their study, researchers at OHSU urged parents and children to make sustainable long-term changes to their lifestyle to lose weight rather than relying on the use of prescription medication. By improving a child’s diet to focus on more whole grains and plenty of servings of healthy fruits and vegetables and increasing the amount of exercise he or she receives daily, parents can help their child avoid permanent weight gain and lower their risk of developing chronic health issues.

Studies have shown that obese children and adults have a significantly higher risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, cancer, gum disease and poor oral health, and stroke when compared to individual’s at a lower weight. For parents to protect the health of their children, helping them manage their weight at a younger age by promoting a healthier lifestyle will carry over into adulthood, while relying on prescription medication only offers a short-term solution.

John Nickelbottom is a freelance health and science writer and father of two.

Image Credit: 1, 2, 3.

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