Research published on anti-obesity programmes in schools

A new study published today in the BMJ claims that school-based programmes aimed at preventing obesity in children are unlikely to have much impact on the childhood obesity epidemic.

While school is an important setting for supporting healthy lifestyles, the researchers say wider influences - for example from families, local communities, and the food industry - may have a greater effect than any school run intervention.

In the UK, around a quarter of children are overweight when they start school at age 4 or 5 years - and the proportion of very overweight children doubles during the subsequent six years (from around 9% to 19%), highlighting this period as critical for preventive action.

Professor Russell Viner, Officer for Health Promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said:

'The obesity crisis facing the UK is serious and the tackling it will require concerted effort at all levels – at the national level and in our local communities - with action by Government, industry, families, communities and schools.

'This study is disappointing but it only suggests this particular school-based intervention didn’t have the positive results we’d have hoped for. That doesn’t mean we should stop developing interventions in schools, nor does it mean that all schools interventions won’t be successful. Schools are a key place of action on childhood obesity. But it does confirm what we already know - that programmes in schools will not on their own combat childhood obesity.

'The environment in which children are brought up has a huge influence on their lifestyle choices, and in the UK the environment is overwhelmingly obesogenic. A child may have had a healthy school lunch and taken part in an hour’s physical activity, but if on their walk home from school they are bombarded with junk food adverts, promotions on unhealthy snacks in shops and an endless stream of fast food chains, it’s easy to see how that work can be undone.

'Schools do have an important part to play in encouraging healthy behaviours. But as with families, action in schools alone can’t overcome the strength of our obesogenic environment.

'Industry also has a major role, and the soft drinks industry levy and Government reformulation targets on sugar are significant steps in the right direction. We also want to see much tighter restrictions on junk food advertising on TV, which we know influences what children want to eat, and limits on promotional offers for unhealthy food. Making the healthy the choice the easy choice, for adults and children alike, is vital.'

Visit the BMJ to find out more.