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Preschool Intervention Curbed Trend Toward Obesity

Kids in program ate less junk food, more fruits and vegetables

WEDNESDAY, March 12 (HealthDay News) -- A preschool-based weight control intervention program instilled healthy eating habits in children aged 2 to 5, a new study shows.

The study, by researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, included children from ethnically diverse, low-income families who went to eight subsidized child-care centers in Miami Dade County. The children were assigned to either an intervention or a control group.

Those in the intervention group received a six-month home- and preschool-based obesity prevention program. The preschool part of the program included the following menu modifications and education:

  • The menu promoted water as the primary beverage for children and staff; offered only skim or 1 percent milk; limited juices and other sweetened beverages; and included fruits and vegetables as snacks as often as possible.
  • Teachers were educated weekly about how to incorporate lessons about nutrition and physical activity and how to better understand and overcome children's cognitive, cultural and environmental barriers to implementing a healthy low-fat, high-fiber diet.

The family part of the program, designed to reinforce what the children learned at day care, included: monthly parent dinners to educate parents about food labels, portion sizes and the food guide pyramid; newsletters that featured topics such as picky eaters, healthy cooking tips, healthy fast food choices, and recipes for healthy snacks; and at-home activities such as sampling different vegetables and various types of lower-fat milks.

When they compared the children in the study group to those in the control group, the researchers concluded that the program is an effective obesity prevention strategy.

"While 68.4 percent of children were at normal weight at the start of the study, this increased to 73 percent at follow-up. Also, the percentage of children who were at risk for overweight decreased from 16 percent to 12 percent," study senior author Sarah E. Messiah, a research assistant professor in the division of pediatric clinical research, said in a prepared statement.

Compared to children in the control group, those in the intervention program ate less junk food, more fruits and vegetables, and drank less juice and more 1 percent milk. On average in the intervention group: chip consumption decreased from daily to none; cookie consumption decreased 50 percent; children ate 25 percent more fresh fruits and vegetables; water consumption increased 20 percent while juice consumption decreased 50 percent; and children drank 20 percent more 1 percent milk.

"In the control sites, cake and cookie consumption actually increased 35 percent and 75 percent, respectively, while average fresh fruit and water consumption decreased," Messiah said.

"We are hoping that our study will impact policy around the country leading to healthier standards for meals served at child-care centers. If we are successful in improving attitudes toward nutrition and physical activity in early childhood, we can potentially influence adult behavior and begin to hope that the public health epidemic of obesity can be ended," she said.

The study was to be presented Wednesday at the American Heart Association's Conference on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"Nobody would dispute that we are experiencing an epidemic of obesity in this country," study co-author Ruby Natale, an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics, said in a prepared statement. "Children as young as 7 years old are experiencing health consequences of being overweight, suggesting that intervention must occur as early as possible and involve the entire family."

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more about overweight and obesity in children.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: American Heart Association, news release, March 12, 2008

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