School based programmes aimed at preventing obesity in children are “are unlikely to halt the childhood obesity epidemic”, according to research published by the BMJ this week.
The findings could have serious implications for the government’s childhood obesity plan and the tax on sugar-sweetened drinks – the proceeds for which will be channelled to schools to help tackle obesity.
Previous reviews of the evidence has suggested that school based interventions may be effective in reducing the proportion of overweight children, but study weaknesses have prevented researchers from making any firm recommendations.
So a team of researchers, led by Professor Peymane Adab at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research, set out to assess the effectiveness of a lifestyle and healthy eating programme (West Midlands ActiVe lifestyle and healthy Eating in School children or WAVES) compared with usual practice, in preventing childhood obesity.
The programme included daily additional physical activity opportunities in schools, a physical activity and healthy eating programme in conjunction with local sporting heroes, regular information to parents about local physical activity opportunities, and workshops on healthy cooking for families at schools.
However, the researchers found no significant difference in weight status and no meaningful effect on body fat measurements, diet or physical activity levels at 15 and 30 months in children taking part in the programme, compared with those not taking part.
“While school is an important setting for influencing children’s health behaviour, and delivery of knowledge and skills to support healthy lifestyles is one of its mandatory functions, wider influences from the family, community, media, and the food industry must also be considered,” they concluded.
Qualitative data from teachers and parents also supported the possibility that these wider influences have a greater effect than any school based intervention, the team said.
The findings from the rigorous study could “help break the cycle of policymakers continuing with ineffective educational preventive approaches that can never hope to greatly impact on the obesity epidemic”, noted Professor Melissa Wake, paediatrician and scientific director at the GenV initiative in Victoria, Australia, in a linked BMJ editorial.
She added: “Common sense approaches endorsed by governments worldwide mainly comprise universal, primary and secondary care strategies to motivate, educate, and facilitate lifestyle change. Unfortunately, these have largely failed a generation of children.”