By Sarah Avery firstname.lastname@example.org
Middle school students targeted with an intensive effort to reduce obesity did no better at losing weight than their peers in schools without special programs, researchers at UNC Chapel Hill and elsewhere report.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, involved a three-year campaign at 42 schools around the country, including six in North Carolina, aimed primarily at cutting the proportion of middle-school children who are overweight or obese.
At half the schools, lunchrooms offered healthier choices, physical education teachers focused on movement instead of sports, classes taught good nutrition and lifestyle choices, hallway posters and morning announcements included health messages.
Yet weight reductions among children at those schools were no different from the pounds shed at the remaining schools, where youngsters were simply measured but no interventions were provided. In both groups of schools, the number of overweight children declined 4 percent during the study.
“Stunned is a good word,” said Joanne Harrell, a nursing professor at UNC and lead investigator for the North Carolina portion of the study. “We really have no answer” why the results were so similar between both groups of schools.
The study did produce some encouraging results. Diet and exercise changes in the intervention schools were successful in reducing some risks for diabetes. But the weight-loss findings underscore the difficulties health leaders face in making significant inroads against obesity.
Carrying extra weight and failing to exercise are key contributors to diabetes, heart disease, cancers and other major health problems. In North Carolina, two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese.
Despite years of dire warnings from health leaders, however, those rates have not improved. The so-called HEALTHY study demonstrates how intractable the problem is.
“Doing a broad intervention like changing a school, as opposed to working with a single overweight child, has essentially never been shown to work,” said Dr. John Buse, one of the study’s researchers and director of the UNC Diabetes Care Center.
Buse said interventions at schools have their limitations. Teaching healthy habits is just one of a school’s many missions, so even with the kinds of special efforts provided through the HEALTHY study, time is limited. Money is also at a premium. Healthier foods tend to be more expensive and often less popular, so changing the cafeteria offerings taps the budget.