Schools Can Help Kids Win Weight Battle
New Cases of Childhood Obesity Drop by 50% in School-Based Study
April 7, 2008 -- Schools can help kids keep a normal weight if the whole school pitches in and takes
a positive, healthy approach, a Philadelphia experiment shows.
During the two-year study, kids in grades 4-6 were half as likely to become
overweight if their school was making an effort to prevent obesity.
Those are "dramatic" results, "but we still have a lot of work
to do," says Gary Foster, PhD, director of the Center for Obesity Research
and Education at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Much of that work has to happen beyond school campuses, says Reginald
Washington, MD, chief medical officer of Denver's Rocky Mountain Hospital for
Children and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' expert committee
Many kids live in an "obesogenic environment," says Washington,
meaning their homes, habits, and communities are geared to weight gain.
"This study clearly shows that changing things in the schools will have
an impact, but as long as all those other things are out there, this problem
will continue," Washington tells WebMD.
Childhood Obesity Study
Americans are heavier than past generations. That includes children.
According to the CDC, 19% of children aged 6-11 were overweight in 2003-2004,
up from 11% in 1988-1994.
Foster's team tested school-based obesity prevention in five inner-city
Philadelphia schools. Those schools drew up their own plans, within a framework
provided by the researchers, to emphasize healthy eating for all kids in grades 4-6.
The words "obesity," "overweight," and "weight"
weren't part of the program.
"Although our purpose in doing this study was to look at effects on
overweight and obesity, weight wasn't talked about," Foster says. Instead,
the schools promoted healthy eating as a way to get stronger, which appealed to
"Nobody wants to stigmatize kids. Nobody wants them to feel bad about
themselves," Sandy Sherman, EdD, director of
nutrition education at The Food Trust, a Philadelphia nonprofit group
involved in the study. "Focus on the positive and reward it."
School staff received nutrition education, and teachers wove 50 hours of
nutrition education into their lessons, such as explaining fractions with pizza
slices. Cafeteria food and vending machine items had to meet certain dietary
"We didn't have a lot of money, we didn't have a lot of space, and
nobody could afford ... to give more minutes to nutrition or
physical activity," Sherman says. "There were no extras in what we
did, but we made it work."
Normal-weight children at the experimental schools were half as likely as
their peers at other schools to become overweight during the study.
"That's the good news," Foster says. But even at the schools that
took part in the experiment, 7.5% of normal-weight children became overweight
during the study. "We may have to up our efforts around things that we
didn't touch in this study, like physical education," he says.
Those efforts also include working with stores near the schools to promote
healthy eating. "Kids were buying food on the way to and from school,
replacing what we had taken away," Sherman says.
Sherman wants the stores to offer cut-up fruit as an option, and for
children to learn to make healthy choices at the stores. For example,
"we're not saying never buy chips, but limit it to one serving,"
The study, published in April's edition of Pediatrics, was "well
done," Washington says, noting that the school program was designed to
prevent -- not treat -- childhood obesity.
"I think two things are very clear in the study," he says. "One
is that prevention is far more effective than treatment and that prevention in
the school setting alone will not get the job done."