As the rate of childhood obesity has continued to steadily grow throughout the U.S., researchers, doctors, and parents have searched high and low for a solution to stop kids’ waistlines from expanding. Eating healthy foods and participating in physical activity could offset the effects of obesity, but now, researchers believe a simple test could help parents and kids prevent the disease before it starts. A study in the journal Diabetes found a blood test could identify whether children as young as 5 are at risk of obesity 10 years later by analyzing DNA changes that predict body fat percentage.

"It can be difficult to predict when children are very young, which children will put on weight or become obese. It is important to know which children are at risk because help, such as suggestions about their diet, can be offered early and before they start to gain weight,” said lead study author Dr. Graham Burdge of the University of Southampton, in the press release. A blood test could provide insight that being overweight or obese in childhood is not just due to lifestyle, but also to factors that involve basic processes that control a person’s genes. Moreover, it may help doctors and parents alike come up with preventive strategies to offset the effects of childhood obesity later in life.

The team of researchers at the universities of Southampton, Exeter, and Plymouth, collected blood samples from 40 out of 300 children, aged 5 to 14, from the EarlyBird Project, which followed the children in Plymouth. Professor Terence Wilkin at the University of Exeter, who also led the new study and the EarlyBird project, assessed the children in Plymouth each year for factors that are related to type 2 diabetes, such as the amount of physical activity and the amount of body fat. Wilkin, Burdge, and other colleagues extracted DNA from the blood samples collected and stored from the EarlyBird project to test for epigenetic switches.

The levels of methylation — an epigenetic, or re-programming mechanism, that allows genes to be affected by exposure to environmental factors — were assessed in the PGC1, a gene that regulates fat storage in the body, according to Science Daily. Epigenetic effects can take place as early as in the womb and are usually attributed to both a mother’s diet and her stress that can lead to changes in the fetus. Some epigenetic changes can even be passed down from the mother or the father and could persist across multiple generations lasting a lifetime.

The findings revealed a 10 percent rise in DNA methylation levels at age 5 was associated with up to 12 percent more body fat at age 14. The results were independent of the child’s gender, their amount of physical activity, and their timing of puberty, wrote the researchers. Although this study could help researchers develop and test new ways to prevent children from becoming obese, this needs to be tested in larger groups of children. “This has shown that these mechanisms can affect their health during childhood and as adults,” said Wilkin in the press release.

The latest statistics from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention show 18 percent of children aged 6 to 11 in the U.S. are obese, compared to 21 percent of those between the ages of 12 to 19 in 2012. Now, more than one-third of children and adolescents are either overweight or obese. Excess weight can lead to a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, prediabetes, and joint problems, among many other health issues.

Source: Burdge GC, Clarke-Harris R, Godfrey KM, et al. Peroxisomal proliferator activated receptor- -co-activator-1 promoter methylation in blood at 5-7 years predicts adiposity from 9 to 14 years (EarlyBird 50). Diabetes. 2014.