A school intervention program costing less than 20 cents per child is stopping unhealthy weight gain among school children in Brazil.
In most developed countries, obesity has reached a plateau but in many developing world nations it is increasing at alarming rates. Without the resources needed to stem the rapid rise in obesity and lacking the capability to efficiently tackle long-term costs of the obesity epidemic to national healthcare systems, many developing countries are taking the easy way out and ignoring the problem.
Scientists, worried about the consequences of this attitude to the health of citizens, have been looking for low-cost solutions that will help prevent people from becoming overweight, starting from childhood. The answer could lie in a new program being tested in schools in Brazil and found to be effective.
‘Healthy School, Happy School’, a randomized controlled trial program designed to test the effectiveness of an intervention to stop obesity in children, and aptly named ‘Healthy School, Happy School’ was conducted in Brazil.
In Brazil, rising urbanization and changing eating habits have led to increase in health problems such as obesity, hypertension and other chronic diseases associated with the sedentary lifestyle.
Researchers in Brazil recruited four public schools with students of both genders, aged between five and 16 years. Schools were randomly assigned to one of two groups for nine months: the intervention group (two schools with 73 children), which focused on lifestyle changes at school and at home, or the control group (two schools with 140 children), which only received the usual recommendations from the regular school curriculum. The average age was 9 ± 2 years, average body mass index (BMI) was 19 kg/m2 and 55.4 percent were girls.
The study included interventions by specialists in cardiovascular prevention in childhood and adolescence, nutrition experts and psychologists.
Intervention activities were held every month in the selected schools through seminars and workshops on physical activities, healthy eating behaviors and bullying. This last topic was included after talking to children, who reported dissatisfaction with body image and suffering bullying from classmates for being obese.
Afterwards, homework activities which required family interaction and commitment to accomplish the goals were proposed. In addition, schools promoted healthy eating by displaying posters and selling nutritious food in the snack bar.
Results from the study showed that while there was no difference between groups before the intervention, the children in the control group showed a significant increase in BMI after the nine months of the study. BMI in the intervention group remained the same, but there was a significant increase in fruit consumption and physical activity among this group.
The implementation cost of the intervention was very low, at less than 20 US cents per student. This indicated that it could be reproduced in other low resource settings.