Head Start for a Healthy Weight

Surprises sometimes offer the best learning. Head Start was not explicitly designed as an childhood obesity prevention program. Launched in 1965, it was conceived long before we had an epidemic of childhood obesity. It was aimed to deliver early childhood education and promote good nutrition, health, and parental involvement for children from low income families

And yet, a new study shows a substantial benefit in helping children with obesity move toward healthier weights when they participate in Head Start.

The study, published online this week in Pediatrics, was a prospective, controlled study comparing children in Michigan Head Start programs to children insured by Medicaid and another group of children not insured by Medicaid. The study could not be randomized because other well-known benefits of Head Start made denying kids access to the program unethical.

Children who had obesity when they enrolled in Head Start significantly improved their weight status compared to either of the comparison groups (p<0.001).Lead investigator Julie Lumeng commented:

In trying to tackle childhood obesity, the interventions we try are very intensive and you hardly get any effect. The National Institutes of Health funds a lot of research into studying obesity prevention, and in my opinion what this study suggests is that the Head Start program has lots of beneficial effects and could also be helping kids’ weight status.

Mary Cunningham Deluca, Director of Children’s Services at Community Action Agency in Jackson, Michigan, said:

 We eat family style and teach kids to serve themselves. When we hire teachers, they are required to model healthy eating, so even if they don’t like a vegetable they have to sample it.

Preconceived notions about childhood obesity prevention are everywhere. Here is an effective intervention right under our noses, and half a century old.

Click here to read more from Reuters and here to read the study.

Preschool Veggie Picking, photograph © Peter & Joyce Grace / flickr

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4 Responses to “Head Start for a Healthy Weight”

  1. January 15, 2015 at 6:50 am, Mary-Jo said:

    Oh, this is music to my ears. This data bears out how effective consistent, unobtrusive ATTENTION and ACCESS to care can be, especially in the formative years, when obesity and weight issues can be ‘nipped in the bud’ and caught before it besets a child (and the general population!) with the (patho)physiological, emotional, psychological issues that lead to obstacles, frustrations, and recidivism when treating it in adulthood. Head Start provides great nutrition education, but also proactive instruction and guidance, examples, and monitoring of the program’s implementation, goals, and results. This is exactly the ‘surprise’ I experienced when I started to provide nutritional and dietetic counseling in international schools because parents were required, by law, to have their children meet certain weight ranges — certainly in the Benelux countries. Because of language barriers, families were hesitant to go to local GPs, when referred by the schools to seek either treatment or prevention for their children. So, as an RDN, I stepped in and, at first, volunteered my services to the schools, and before I knew it, I was working a couple days a week providing individual counseling, forming weight-loss or nutrition-ed groups of teens and pre-teens, coordinating health fairs with school nurses and health ed teachers, working with PE teachers and sports coaches, etc. What was so fantastic is that children can be unobtrusively attended to and followed up for 2,3 years, sometimes longer until their growth curve and other markers ascertain they have ‘normalized’ and/or optimized their growth and development and show signs of improved eating and physical activity habits that will stick with them, for life! It was a great way, too of positively engaging parents and whole families into practicing and sustaining healthier eating and activity cognitions, behaviours, and habits. From this, I got the idea to propose a study on the effects of RDNs working, similarly, in school districts everywhere — not just in school cafeterias, but, as I did in international schools, actually ‘treating’ kids and their families. I went back to school and did a degree in epidemiology, devised a protocol, and ran a pilot study in international schools in the Netherlands, with some promising results. I sent the study protocol to a couple key organizations in the US that were specifically working on decreasing childhood obesity and weight issues and poor eating habits in children. This was in 2003-2006. I was told this type of intervention was ‘too political’ and would never get funding for study. I was disappointed and gave up. I see now that there is more pro-action in schools, but still not in the capacity that I envision may truly be a way to help increase ACCESS to care, attention, and monitoring for children, their families, and school staff. The concept was at least worth an investigation, imo.I truly hope this data from Head Start serves to provoke more exploration into an area that I believe has potential to make a dent in the obesity epidemic — low-cost, high-benefit.

    • January 15, 2015 at 7:44 am, Ted said:

      Well-said, Mary-Jo. Thanks!

  2. January 15, 2015 at 1:13 pm, Amy Habeck, MS, RDN said:

    It is great news that Head Start has an effect on obesity in children. In addition, Head Start saves $. For every dollar spent on Head Start, the US saves $7-9. http://www.nhsa.org/files/static_page_files/0610CCDD-1D09-3519-ADAF419AF96C38E0/Head_Start_Return_On_Investment_Brief_LAS-yv.pdf
    A new spending bill would provide an additional $1 billion boost to Head Start education. http://www.nhsa.org/files/static_page_files/0610CCDD-1D09-3519-ADAF419AF96C38E0/Head_Start_Return_On_Investment_Brief_LAS-yv.pdf
    Regardless of how one may feel about other provisions of the spending bill introduced this week, Head Start funding makes sense.

    • January 15, 2015 at 2:53 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Amy, for providing further perspective.