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Youth-Obesity Interventions Found to Be Effective, Do No Harm

School-based programs that promote physical fitness and healthy eating were found to have a positive impact in the fight against childhood obesity, according to a review published Tuesday in The Cochrane Library.

Equally as important: The researchers found no evidence that these interventions had a harmful effect on any students.

"Our findings show that obesity prevention is worth investing in," said lead researcher Elizabeth Waters, who works at the McCaughey Centre at the University of Melbourne in Australia. "Given the range of programs included in this review, it is hard to say exactly which components are the best, but we think the strategies to focus on are those that seek to change environments, rather than just the behavior of individuals."

The researchers updated a previous Cochrane Review from 2005 in an attempt to discover which interventions were most successful in helping children stay a healthy weight and avoid obesity. They reviewed 55 studies in total, which varied in the interventions examined and the degree of success associated with each programs.

Most of the successful interventions were either tied to improving a child's eating habits or physical-activity levels, due to their strong link to obesity.

The researchers identified a number of school-based programs that could help prevent childhood obesity, including:

• Increasing the amount of physical activity for students on a weekly basis.

• Improving the nutritional quality of food served in schools. (Congress' recent moves won't help in that regard.)

• Training teachers in ways to promote physical activity and healthy eating.

• Reaching out to parents and encouraging home-based physical activity and healthy eating.

"Research that aims to reduce childhood obesity must now concentrate on finding ways of embedding effective interventions in health, education, and care systems, so that we can make population-wide, long-term impacts on the levels of obesity," said Waters.

Are Doctors Playing Their Role?

Fewer than 25 percent of parents of overweight children ever recall being told by a doctor that their child's weight was an issue, according to a separate study published Monday in the Journal of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, drew on data collected as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1999 to 2008. In all, the researchers examined data from 4,895 children, ages 2 to 15, whose body mass index was at or above the 85th percentile. (Someone with a BMI between the 85th and 94th percentile is considered "overweight.")

Only 22 percent of the parents of those children reported that either a doctor or health-care professional told them that their child was overweight.

It's not all bad news, though. The study found more doctors to be informing parents about their child's obesity over the past decade, going from 19.4 percent in 1999 to 29.1 percent in 2007-08.

"As health-care providers, it's our job to screen for overweight and obesity and communicate those screening results in sensitive ways, and we are clearly either not doing it or not doing it in a way that families can hear or remember," said Dr. Eliana M. Perrin, lead author of the study and associated professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. "While we've done better in recent years, clearly there's more work to be done."

The next question is, as Dr. Perrin notes: How much of a difference would it make if all parents of overweight children were cognizant of their child's condition?

One study released in July attempted to answer that question already. It suggested that when California schools notified parents about their child's weight issues, the warnings had no impact on his or her future weight loss.

Another study, released in September, discovered that 22 percent of parents feel uncomfortable discussing the consequences of being overweight with their children.

So, while awareness may be part of the battle in attempting to combat childhood obesity, it's clear that more needs to be done.

As the Cochrane Library review suggests, schools can and should play an integral role in that ongoing battle.

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