Feature: Youngsters who turn to peer mentoring 'can fight obesity'

7 October 2011

The issue of obesity is one that constantly frequents journals, news reports and studies but the cure could be a more practical approach starting with simple methods of education. A new study suggests that teaching prevention is the best method and that young adults respond better to their peers than to doctors or specialists.

Healthcare research has shown that the number of young people who are classed as clinically obese has tripled over the past 40 years.

The study published in the journal Childhood Obesity found that 18 per cent of teens in the US are heavily overweight and putting their health at serious risk.

Researchers from Columbia University in New York looked at the HealthCorps model, a school programme to help tackle the causes of obesity, and compared the weight results of pupils from five different schools enrolled into the initiative.

The study found that education and mentoring from such programmes targeting obesity and delivered in schools by peers have a significant impact on diet and physical activity.

David L Katz, editor-in-chief of Childhood Obesity and director of Yale University's prevention research center, said: "[Researchers] suggest that peer mentoring can be part of the solution to the serious problem of teen obesity and related ill-health by modifying behaviours. Just as importantly, however, they indicate that peer mentoring cannot be the whole solution and thus we all have lots of work left to do to create environments - both in school and out - that foster the wellbeing of our teenage sons and daughters."

According to findings, giving advice on nutrition, diet and exercise can help teach youngsters the value of living a healthy lifestyle.

This research comes as one House of Lords peer and former surgeon Lord McColl caused a stir after he commented that people who are overweight should just "eat less".

He continued that the message is absolutely clear- this is the most serious epidemic to affect this country for 100 years and it is killing millions.

The study at Columbia University showed that the 'education as a cure' model was particularly effective for reducing the consumption of calorific fizzy drinks, with a 13 per cent drop among the participants.

Furthermore, girls seemed to respond better to the advice as results showed that 25.7 per cent of them reduced their high-calorie drink intake.

Also, 45 per cent of people who took part in a previous HealthCorps programme reported that they led a more active, healthy lifestyle.

As for the cause of obesity, further analysis has claimed that advertising and marketing have a major effect on the types of foods chosen at meal times.

Parents and healthcare providers are said to be worried about the effect of fast-food advertising and the negative impacts it can have on what children like to eat.

Published in the Journal of Pediatrics, the research looks at the relationship young people have between food choices and adverts. It also takes into account parental influence on a child's eating habits.

Dr Christopher Ferguson at Texas A&M International University commented: "Parents have an advantage if they are consistent with their long-term messages about healthy eating."

Sarah Schenker, a spokesperson from the British Dietetic Association, explained that parents can have a significant influence on what their children like to eat, which could result in fussiness.

The correct mentoring at home and school could ensure that diets are kept healthy and that youngsters are taking enough exercise, according to the earlier study findings.

Ms Schenker added that engaging children with what they are eating can help alleviate fussiness.

Overall, the studies are a sign that obesity, while in some cases a genetic occurrence, can be prevented through raising awareness and can have a noticeable impact when peer mentoring is implemented.

Mr Katz summarised that the results achieved by HealthCorps are important and encouraging.

Posted by Edward Bartel

Cawley, John, et al., "Effect of HealthCorps, a High School Peer Mentoring Program, on Youth Diet and Physical Activity", Childhood Obesity, October 2011.

Ferguson, C, "Advertising Influences on Young Children's Food Choices and Parental Influence", Journal of Pediatrics, August 2011.


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