Program to reduce childhood obesity has extended benefits

Prof. Jess Haines and research on childhood obesity at the University of GuelphAn educational program offered to parents and young children at community centres may provide benefits beyond its initial goal of reducing childhood obesity, according to a new study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

The pilot study found that parents in the Parents and Tots Together (PTT) program reported less stress and better management of their children’s general behaviour. PTT had a minimal influence on children’s body mass index (BMI).

Over the nine-week program, the researchers invited parents and children aged two to five to community centres for weekly dinners. After the meal, the parents discussed topics with a community worker and dietitian while their children took part in educational programming.

The parents then attempted to change their children’s behaviour during the week, including more sleep and physical activity, less screen time and fewer sugar-sweetened drinks. The program also attempted to improve parents’ feeding practices.

Following up nine months later, the researchers found most parents felt their general parenting abilities had improved.

Changing children’s lifestyle and eating habits early in life has benefits, says senior author Prof. Jess Haines, Family Relations and Applied Nutrition.

“This age is when behaviour patterns are being formed in children; we know that kids that are overweight by the age of six will generally be overweight as teens and young adults,” she says.

Haines said the researchers wanted to look beyond BMI alone. “To see drastic changes in children so young would be challenging to see; we focus more on healthy behaviours,” she says.

PhD student and lead author Kathryn Walton says concerns about their children’s weight were a low priority for most parents taking part in the PTT program.

“The primary draw for most people was about general parenting, specifically discipline and limit-setting,” she says.

The researchers are now considering expanding the program, including modifying it for the workplace.