Researchers found a drop in Philadelphia high school obesity rates between 2006 and 2010, the first time a large evaluation has suggested that a school system's efforts to curb obesity were effective.
Philadelphia researchers, including city health commissioner Donald Schwarz, looked at the BMI (Body Mass Index) numbers of 120,000 students from elementary school through high school, and found a five percent decline in obesity rates over the five years studied. Though it's hard to prove for sure that the school system's efforts were the greatest cause of the improvement, Philadelphia clearly tried to make a difference. Schools banned soda and sugary beverages, removed all deep fryers and sold only low fat milk in their cafeterias over the last 10 years.
"You've got to give the school system in Philadelphia credit for doing this stuff," said Dr. Louis Aronne, director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital and the Weill Cornell Medical Center. "It's not just one step, but many steps that are going to be necessary to stem the tide of obesity."
Similar studies have been conducted in California and Arkansas, but in neither of those places was there a significant weight reduction over time.
Aronne said perhaps Philadelphia students weren't able to leave school -- and buy unhealthy foods -- as easily as students in California, who were more likely to have cars. The Philadelphia health efforts also included telling kids to leave unhealthy snacks at home, and cooperating with nearby corner stores to put healthy choices -- instead of candy -- near the cash register.
But Commissioner Schwarz says the decline isn't what most surprised him. He said he was more struck by which groups saw the biggest slim-down: African American girls and Hispanic boys.
In other studies, Schwarz said, the students who had the greatest success against obesity were wealthy, but African Americans and Hispanics in Philadelphia typically aren't.
Students might not always be able to choose healthy snacks at home, but they'll get healthy snacks in school, said Lisa Rudi, who manages Eat.Right.Now, a 13-year-old program in Philadelphia to end hunger and promote healthy eating. The program features afterschool cooking clubs, school assemblies and field trips to farms. School farm stores even sell produce inexpensively and offer recipes to parents.
"They're getting to taste vegetables they've never tasted before," she said. "Last year, we did sweet potatoes for 2 and a half pounds for a dollar."
Bettyann Creighton, the district's director of safety and physical education, said teachers are also encouraged to provide non-food rewards in the classroom, and clubs are encouraged to sell healthy treats -- instead of candy and cupcakes -- when they hold fundraisers.
Aronne, who was not part of the study, said he thinks preventing obesity in children is a crucial step toward curbing it nationwide. He said relatively new research indicates that fatty or sugary foods "injure" the weight-regulating areas of the brain early and lead to obesity, which could point to why Philadelphia's actions to foster healthy eating early are important.
"If we're going to stop the epidemic of obesity, it's going to be in childhood," he said.
He added that Philadelphia's results are not a miracle. "It's the result, in my opinion, of applying a number of techniques over several years."