In Fighting Obesity, Arm Kids with an Appetite for Change
Study after study confirms that children who are obese at a young age are more likely to remain obese into adolescence and adulthood, putting them at risk for numerous preventable diseases. Yet, when it comes to finding a solution to this mounting problem, we seem to be spinning our wheels.
For more than a half century, national initiatives geared to youth physical fitness have received considerable federal and corporate support. More recently, concerned groups have stepped up efforts to encourage good childhood eating habits. Ironically, though, programs combining both sound nutrition AND physical activity – fundamental elements of good health — have generally been lacking.
“A whole lifestyle approach is needed if we’re going to conquer childhood obesity,” said Veronica Atkins, chair of the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Foundation, which funds independent, scientific research in nutrition and metabolism. “Just as a race car cannot perform well if it uses crude oil for fuel, the best physical fitness programs in the world are not going to prevent childhood obesity as long as young people are eating junk.”
What’s more, even some of the more comprehensive children’s health programs have produced little if any qualitative or quantitative data. Case in point: A recent report from an expert panel on childhood obesity, commissioned by the Institute of Medicine, noted that “there is a proliferation of activity taking place across the country in schools, in the community and states, but precious little of it has been subject to evaluation.”
This disconnect between integration and evaluation is beginning to change, however, thanks to a growing number of clinical researchers who are making their way into the classroom. Collaborating with educators to design and conduct studies that apply scientific methods to school-based programs, these researchers are becoming better equipped to assess which approaches work best.
One example of this collaboration is a lifestyle intervention lab at the University of Southern California (USC), combining exercise facilities, cooking instruction and counseling in its work to understand the link between lifestyle changes and adolescents’ risk of obesity and diabetes. Measurable results, ranging from weight loss to lower blood sugar levels, encourage the young participants’ continued commitment to the program, which many credit with changing their lives.
“Research is vitally important in finding effective methods for the prevention of obesity and other diseases. What we’re finding is that, if given the resources and options to make healthy nutritional choices, kids respond positively,” said Abby Bloch, Ph.D., executive director of programs and research for the Atkins Foundation, which helps foster cooperation among diverse organizations seeking solutions to childhood obesity.
Indeed, getting young people to “buy-in” to health programs is a key element to success. “Life in Action,” an educational program of the Canada-based Free the Children organization, which provides nutritional and physical activity education curriculum to help teach young people how to make healthy choices, is one example. This dynamic program empowers students to positively influence each other through daily food and activity choices, incorporating workshops, speeches and training for them to become Leadership Ambassadors. They then initiate their own school-based actions with fellow students to promote healthy living. Now being implemented at select schools in the United States, “Life in Action” has already resulted in several youth-initiated peer programs.