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Children's Health

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Schools Can Help Kids Win Weight Battle

New Cases of Childhood Obesity Drop by 50% in School-Based Study
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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 on childhood obesity.

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 the kids.

"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 standards.

"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."

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