A lesson for Britain’s obesity hysterics

New evidence from America suggests that intervening in schools and forcing kids to eat, think and learn healthily does not make them slimmer.

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Patrick Basham and John Luik, co-authors of Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade, argue that the British government’s plans to intervene in schools and force kids to become healthy are doomed to failure.

One of the conceits of anti-obesity campaigners is that they ‘know’ how to prevent children from becoming fat. But if the results of a much-awaited study on one of the central pillars of fighting childhood obesity – school interventions for healthy eating – are anything to go by, then such school-based programmes are expensive failures.

In its new obesity strategy, the UK government has placed considerable emphasis on school-based interventions which are designed to reduce childhood obesity through including lessons about healthy eating, serving only ‘healthy food’, involving parents, and using social marketing strategies designed to apply social pressure to ‘encourage’ children to eat healthily. All of these, according to both the prime minister Gordon Brown and the health minister Alan Johnson, represent the best in evidence-backed approaches to reducing childhood obesity.

Unfortunately, this appears not to be the case. The journal Pediatrics has recently published the results of the Student Nutrition Policy Initiative (1), a US programme which includes almost all of the government’s initiatives for tackling obesity – and the results demonstrate that the government’s plans to prevent obesity in Britain’s children are almost certain to fail.

In the School Nutrition Policy Initiative, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control, 10 inner-city Philadelphia schools were targeted. Over 1,300 students were divided into intervention and control schools. In the intervention schools, staff were instructed in healthy eating and physical activity and how to integrate these themes into their teaching. Students were provided with 50 hours of healthy eating instruction each year. Children, for instance, were taught writing through essay assignments on nutrition. Every food sold or served in the schools had to meet strict healthy eating standards and all vending machines were taken out of the schools. Perhaps most controversially, children who failed to eat properly were denied rewards such as sitting by friends or extra recess.

And what were the results of such massive obesity-prevention efforts? From the spin in the press, one would think that the children in the schools with all of the focus on healthy food, along with the stigma of being overweight, ended up weighing less. After all, this was about reducing and preventing overweight and obesity. For example, the website Science Daily reported the study as showing that ‘school-based intervention, which reduced the incidence of overweight by 50 per cent, offers a potential means of preventing childhood weight gain and obesity on a large scale’ (2).

But this puts a rather one-sided spin on the results. According to the study, the percentage of obese children in the intervention schools actually increased by 1.25 per cent compared with an increase of 1.37 per cent in the schools which didn’t get all the obesity-prevention measures. In other words, there was no statistically significant difference between the schools. As the researchers themselves admitted: ‘After two years, there were no differences between intervention and control schools in the prevalence of obesity.’ Even more shocking, they reported that ‘the intervention had no effect at the upper end of the BMI distribution… on the incidence, prevalence, or remission of obesity’.

And what about all that attention to healthy eating? After all, the point was that kids would not only have less chance of getting fat, but that they would eat better, too. In the intervention schools, at the end of the two-year programme, the number of children who were eating ‘healthily’, that is, eating the required amounts of vegetables and fruits, declined. These kids were eating fewer servings of fruits and vegetables than the kids who had no nutritional instruction and who attended school where ‘unhealthy’ foods were served.

So, whether success was measured by changes in body mass index, eating patterns, or the numbers of kids who were overweight or obese, this massive social-engineering project that is supposed to serve as a model for Britain was a failure.

The anti-obesity activists and the government have continually said that the so-called obesity epidemic is all about children. And they have had confidently told us that they knew best how to deal with overweight and obese children. But the evidence – as opposed to the faith – suggests otherwise. It suggests that when it comes to food, obesity and children, the food nannies and the government really know next to nothing about what works.

Patrick Basham and John Luik are co-authors, with Gio Gori, of Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade, a Social Affairs Unit book. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Patrick Basham and John Luik attacked the proposals to remove children from obese households. Luik told Rob Lyons that the obesity panic is being reinforced by savvy interest groups and junkscience. Peter Marsh asked what’s behind the sensationalist child obesity headlines. Jennie Bristow reported the findings of a spiked poll showing that parents should be responsible for children’s diets. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.

(1) ‘A Policy-Based School Intervention to Prevent Overweight and Obesity’, G. Foster et al, Pediatrics, 4 April 2008

(2) Changing School Environment Curbs Weight Gain In Children, Study Shows, Science Daily, 7 April 2008

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