Head Start participation associated with healthy changes in body weight among impoverished overweight and obese children
A team of researchers found that preschoolers in Head Start programs who were overweight or obese were more likely to reach healthier weights by kindergarten age than other groups of overweight and obese children. Head Start is a federally funded preschool program for children living in poverty. The researchers sought to determine whether Head Start might be a valuable setting for reducing childhood obesity because these programs serve impoverished children across the country, and because socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals are at greater risk for obesity.
For the study, the research team gathered children’s weight and height measures from 12 Head Start programs in Michigan, both rural and urban, who agreed to participate, along with measures from other children for comparison. More than 19,000 children were in the Head Start group, including similar numbers of boys and girls, with race/ethnicities of 65 percent white, 11 percent black, and 14 percent Hispanic. The comparison groups, who were from a health care system in the same state, included 5,400 children who were on Medicaid, and over 19,000 children not on Medicaid. To examine the children’s weight changes over time, taking into account the fact that children also grow in height, the researchers calculated body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight relative to height. They then examined how far the children’s BMIs varied from what is considered healthy for their ages, based on standard growth charts for boys and girls. Among children who were obese or overweight, those in Head Start attained a healthier BMI during the first year of the study than children in the comparison groups, and were still at a healthier weight by the end of the second year. Children in Head Start who were underweight also reached healthier weights than those in comparison groups, although the data were more limited. It is not clear which aspects of Head Start may have contributed to these weight changes, but the researchers suggested several possibilities. For example, Head Start programs are required to meet certain nutritional guidelines, provide space for active play, prohibit television watching, and facilitate access to health care. The results of this study provide evidence that Head Start programs may have beneficial effects on children’s weight early in life.