School programmes to combat obesity unlikely to have much impact

Researchers said famly, local community and food industry may have greater effect

School based programmes aimed at preventing obesity in children are unlikely to have much impact on the childhood obesity epidemic, a study in the British Medical Journal suggests.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham found while school is an important setting for supporting healthy lifestyles, wider influences such as families, local communities and the food industry may have a greater effect.

Researchers found no significant difference in weight and no meaningful effect on body fat measurements when they compared children who took part in a 12-month school delivered programme focusing on healthy eating and physical activity, to those who did not.

The results were based on data from 1,400 six and seven year-olds at 54 randomly selected state run primary schools in the West Midlands who were monitored over a two and half year period.


The researchers pointed to some limitations, such as possible imbalances between the groups at the start of the trial, but say strengths include the large number of schools involved and lengthy follow-up.

They suggest that “nudge” interventions such as using financial incentives to prompt healthier behaviour merit further investigation but they conclude school based motivational, educational approaches “are unlikely to halt the childhood obesity epidemic”.

A Safe Food Ireland study last year found one in four children in Ireland is now overweight or obese.

In the UK, around a quarter of children are overweight when they start school at age four or five years.

Professor Melissa Wake, paediatrician and scientific director at the GenV initiative in Victoria, Australia, said the findings “could perhaps help break the cycle of policymakers continuing with ineffective educational preventive approaches that can never hope to greatly impact on the obesity epidemic”.

In a linked editorial, Prof Wake said “effective, scalable and affordable strategies are needed that reduce childhood obesity, can be implemented locally and do not widen health inequities.

“It is time to step back, take stock, carefully examine longitudinal data from contemporary children, and generate new, solution focused approaches that could maximise health gain and be rigorously and speedily tested.”

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times