School Programs Trim Kids, but Gains Erased at Home

The success of school programs to trim the weight off of obese kids is often nullified by unhealthy habits at home, leading to a steady and continued worsening of the country's childhood obesity epidemic.

So says a new study by the Agatston Research Foundation in Miami Beach, Fla., which was presented at the American Heart Association scientific sessions in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday.

According to researchers, the Healthier Options for Public Schoolchildren (HOPS) study -- a school intervention program combining nutrition education, rigorous dietary changes in schools and physical activity -- successfully trimmed students' body mass index (BMI) during the school year.

However, when these children returned to school the following year after summer vacation, their BMI had increased significantly.

The findings come at a time when the prevalence of overweight and obese children in America is a leading public health issue. In 2004, it was found that 17.1 percent of children and adolescents between the age of 2 and 19 years old were obese.

Yet despite continued media attention and intervention programs in schools aimed at addressing this issue, the number of obese children and adolescents continues to rise each year.

"I would say that Americans can feel confident that when nutrition education is combined with real rigorous dietary changes in the school setting, that obesity issues can be successfully addressed and we will see a change in [children's] BMI percentiles," explained Danielle Hollar, director of research at the Agatston Research Foundation. "What limits these programs' success is that for a lot of children, the food they get in school is the most nutritious food they get that day."

Structure Helps Build Better Diet Habits

The HOPS study included 3,200 third graders in six elementary schools in the Osceola County School District of Kissimmee, Fla.

Four of the schools instituted the intervention program for obesity. Researchers collected data from the four intervention schools and two nonintervention schools in the spring and fall for a period of two years, measuring each child's height, weight, BMI, pulse and blood pressure. To get a snapshot of each student's lifestyle habits, researchers asked children general questions about their activity level and eating habits.

Although the specific results of the blood pressure substudy won't be released until next spring, results of the BMI percentile analyses have been presented, Hollar said they saw "statistically significant greater improvement" in the children's BMI percentiles during the school year in the intervention as compared to the nonintervention schools over the two-year study period. After returning from summer vacation, however, Hollar said the children's BMI levels from all six schools had increased -- though the children attending intervention schools gained less weight over the summer.

According to Dominic Sica, chairman of clinical pharmacology and hypertension at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, these results should impart an important lesson not only to schools but to parents.

"This shows that children work well in the structured environment, but when they aren't they revert back to the patterns of behavior they're accustomed to based on... the example of behavior set by their parents.

"The lesson learned is that school is more than just textbooks -- school is life," Sica said.

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