All childhood obesity programs are not created equal, study finds

Community-based interventions to halt childhood obesity are gaining popularity as schools, local governments, parents and health clubs work together to help kids slim down and eat more healthfully. First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign helped push the issue to the forefront.

But some interventions may be working better than others, according to a study presented this week at the International Congress on Obesity in Stockholm, Sweden. Researchers looked at the success of three three-year community intervention programs, each targeting a different age group of more than 1,000 children -- kids younger than 5, primary-school age children and teens. Each group had a similar control population that received no intervention.

The interventions targeted healthful eating and physical activity, and included strategies for continuing the community programs once the study ended.

Children younger than 5 achieved the best results. This group included 12,000 children in preschools, daycare facilities, homes and maternal and child health services. After three years, the prevalence of children who were overweight or obese was about 3% lower than in the control group.

Children in the primary school group didn’t see any downturns in overweight or obesity levels, but weight gain rates did slow. After three years, the children gained about 2 pounds less than their intervention-less counterparts.

Interventions in the teen group, which were done in four different countries ( Australia, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand), had varying results. Australian teens (who were mostly of European ancestry) lost weight, but those in other countries who were from the Pacific Islands or were of Indian heritage showed mixed outcomes.

“Once you get to high-school aged children, trying to implement an intervention at the whole community level becomes more difficult because high schools have a larger catchment area and parents and other organizations are less engaged,” said Boyd Swinburn, who presented the study, in a news release. The director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University in Australia added, “The usual health promotion activities -- such as those aimed at increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables, improving the healthiness of foods available at school, improving body image and reducing inappropriate dieting, promoting breakfast, decreasing consumption of high-sugar drinks while increasing water consumption and increasing active transport -- haven’t been enough for many ethnic groups and we now need to go back and think about how best to intervene with them.”

He went on to say, “Our results, together with the evidence from other demonstration projects conducted elsewhere, suggest we should get moving to scale up efforts in [those under 5]. There hasn’t been that much research in this age group, but what has been done around the world indicates these children seem to be the most susceptible to change.”