Childhood obesity is now a global epidemic, and researchers worldwide are searching for sustainable interventions that may halt its progress.
Now, a team of researchers from Fudan University in Shanghai, China, and the University of Georgia have shown that one comprehensive obesity intervention, which integrates family and school participation to encourage healthy eating and exercise habits, can reduce rates of obesity long-term.
The researchers assessed changes to participants’ body mass index one, two and three years following the conclusion of the three-year intervention program.
Like many obesity programs, the intervention began at school. It introduced nutrition education into the classroom, revamped the lunchroom options and established regular exercise for students.
The innovation of the program lies with what happened once the students returned home. Acknowledging the role of the home environment, the intervention also trained the students’ parents to support healthy eating habits and exercise outside of school.
The comprehensive nature of the intervention is unique, says Dr. Donglan Zhang, one of the study authors and health policy faculty at University of Georgia College of Public Health.
“This model in particular recognizes that reducing the obesity rate is not just the responsibility of one institution or environment,” she said. “It should be a joint effort from schools, from families, from communities all together because kids have a lot of [food] environments they’re exposed to.”
In all, almost 1,000 first-grade boys and girls participated in the program. At the end of three years, the program succeeded in helping overweight or obese children lose weight, and it helped children with a healthy weight maintain it.
This is where the story ends for most childhood obesity intervention studies, says Dr. Janani Thapa, also with UGA’s College of Public Health. Dr. Thapa specializes in childhood obesity interventions and policy.
“What we see in most interventions is a checkmark pattern. The weight tends to decline, and then after the project period ends, we’ll see the weight go back up,” she said.
But that’s not what happened in the three years following the Shanghai intervention.
At each follow-up, the students who participated in the program continued to maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI) compared with students who were not part of the intervention. The effect was even more prominent among girls.
“The current study suggests that it probably requires a minimum of two years to demonstrate a lasting effect,” said Dr. Thapa.