Schools have the power to help fight childhood obesity, according to a Temple University study. No, meals of mystery meat and other inedible dishes did not figure in the strategy. The study found that schools that adopted a new, multifaceted nutrition program reduced the number of overweight children by 50 percent over a two-year period.

"We focused on school, because children spend most of their lives there and eat at least one, if not two, meals there, said lead author Gary Foster, director of Temple's Center for Obesity Research and Education.

The study looked at five Philadelphia schools that implemented a special food program that included:
  • Eliminating unhealthy snacks and sodas and replacing them with water, low-fat milk or 100 percent fruit juice.
  • Training teachers to teach nutrition and giving students 50 hours of nutrition education during the year.
  • Rewarding kids who practice healthy snacking.
  • Encouraging parents and students to purchase healthy snacks outside of school and challenging kids to eat better and exercise more.
Researchers followed students from grades 4 through 6 at these schools and five control schools, measuring the weight, height and physical activity of all 1,349 students.

The results? Only 7.5 percent of students in schools with the new nutrition policy became overweight, compared with 15 percent in the control schools.

Despite this apparent success, researchers argue that stronger interventions are needed. These might include increasing physical education time, instituting more aggressive nutrition policies, and finding ways to change the nutrition environment outside of schools.

The researchers also recommend that prevention programs begin earlier, as the national prevalence of overweight children in grades 4 through 6 is already at 41.7 percent.

This study is published in the April issue of Pediatrics.