Parents targeted to tackle childhood obesity

Apr 4 2011

Latest research shows changing the eating attitudes of parents rather than children is the key to combating childhood obesity.

Published today in the leading US medical journal Pediatrics, researchers from the universities of Newcastle and Wollongong have found that parents must be actively engaged in changing the whole family’s diet to help reduce childhood obesity.

“Until now, health programs have commonly targeted children. This research shows that we can target parents alone, even without the child’s involvement, and achieve better results,” Professor Clare Collins, from the University of Newcastle, said.

“Significant effort has gone into encouraging children to eat well but if this message is not being reinforced at home, unhealthy behaviours will not change.”

The two-year study, titled Hunter Illawarra Kids Challenge Using Parent Support (HIKCUPS), involved 165 overweight prepubescent children who were divided into three groups:

  • a parent-centred nutrition program where parents were encouraged to change the whole family’s food habits and set healthy eating goals for their family with the assistance of accredited practising dieticians;
  • a child-centred activity program where children developed their fundamental movement with the assistance of a physical education specialist; and
  • a combined program that incorporated both nutrition and activity programs with joint child and parental participation.

Children in all groups achieved important improvements in their weight status over the two years and all became slimmer for their age. This was equivalent to them gaining less than half the weight that they would have gained if they had not been in this research program.

“We are not advocating stopping the great health programs currently targeting children, as educating our kids on healthy lifestyles is critically important.

However, our findings show that the most effective childhood obesity treatment is parents being given good quality advice and support to improve the family’s food habits,” Associate Professor Tony Okely, from the University of Wollongong, said.

“The results indicate that by targeting the parents predominately, we can make a huge difference to this global epidemic.”

Professor Collins and her team from the University of Newcastle are members of the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI). HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.

Associate Professor Tony Okely and his team from the University of Wollongong are members of the Interdisciplinary Educational Research Institute and Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute.

The HIKUPS trial was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.