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Head Start could help kids slim down


The federal early education program Head Start could help children fight obesity, according to a new study published today in the online journal Pediatrics.

Julie Lumeng, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan and the study's lead author, sampled almost 44,000 Michigan children.

"Over the course of their time in Head Start, if they started the year obese, they become slimmer," said Lumeng.  And the Head Start kids who were obese or overweight were more likely to slim down by the end of the school year than pre-schoolers in the two comparison groups.  

About 19,000 Head Start kids were compared to 5,405 children from Medicaid families and about 19,000 children from non-Medicaid families being served by a Michigan primary health care system.

"What our study suggests is that investing in Head Start might be helpful in preventing obesity or treating obesity in children," said Lumeng.

Lumeng said obesity at ages as young as three and four is likely to track into adulthood, and obesity increases the risk of serious health problems.

The study also reported that underweight Head Start participants were less underweight at follow-up than pre-schoolers in the comparison groups.

Lumeng said Head Start may be associated with healthier weights for a number of reasons. It must comply with federal nutritional requirements for meals and snacks which mandate a certain amount of fruits and vegetables and restrict sugary drinks. Head Start regulations also emphasize exercise and prohibit television viewing, a risk factor for pre-school overweight. By providing free child care, Head Start may enable families to allocate limited financial resources to buying healthier food. And  Head Start participation is associated with children's improved ability to cope with stress, and stress is associated with obesity risk.

Lumeng noted some limitations to the study. She said ideally the study would have randomly assigned only some children to attend Head Start, but that would be unethical in light of Head Start's educational benefits. 

Virginia Gordan, Michigan Radio Newsroom