Researchers look to track obesity in middle-schoolers

In order to combat the findings that show that nearly half of all American children are projected to be overweight by the end of the decade, researchers at Temple are addressing the potential epidemic of childhood obesity.

Dr. Gary Foster is leading a health study for middle school students, which is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The study will follow 4,200 new sixth-graders in 42 middle schools across five different states over a three year period throughout their middle-school careers. Students in Oregon, California, Pennsylvania, Texas and North Carolina will participate.

“The prevalence of obesity and diabetes in kids is increasing dramatically,” said Foster, the study’s chairman and the director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple’s School of Medicine.

“By performing this study, we are trying to prevent risk factors for diabetes, especially obesity in a school setting. We want to know if a school-based intervention like this will reduce the risks that lead to diabetes and obesity in children.”

The study is targeting schools where at least half the students are minorities.

According to the American Diabetes Association, studies have shown that minorities, specifically African Americans and Latinos, are at a higher risk for Type 2 diabetes, which is linked directly to obesity. Other warning signs of diabetes include abnormally high levels of blood sugar and dehydration.

One group of students in the study will get healthier cafeteria food, and have the snack foods or sweetened beverages restricted, as well as having more rigorous gym classes, while the other group will be exposed to the same type of food and gym regimens that they are used to.

“We’re making major policy changes in the middle schools,” Foster explained. “Each school participating will improve upon the quantity and quality of their gym classes by providing 225 minutes of physical education over two-week periods, which is significantly higher than most schools.”

Foster said that the gym classes will stress “moderate to vigorous physical activity,” meaning that there will be fewer activities that involve watching someone teach physical education. Instead, the students will learn by doing, which will exude maximum participation.

The changes in the cafeteria menus are varied. The only beverage available at lunch will be water. Drinks such as orange juice or milk will be limited to breakfast servings. In terms of food, the changes will include switching white bread for whole wheat, decreased portion sizes for snack foods, lower fat content, reduced calories and an increase in fiber, as well as adding more fruits and vegetables to the participant’s diet.

In addition to those changes, the schools will offer classroom education sessions, or in-class activities to increase student knowledge about the potential risks of diabetes, as well as healthy eating and healthy living.

“It’s not enough to tell the children to eat the right thing. We have to show them the proper rationale and the lifestyle advantages to eating healthier,” Foster said.

Although these adjustments will dramatically change the lives of the students participating, they are, Foster said, excited to take part in the study.

There is an added incentive that each student that participates gets rewarded with a $50 Wal-Mart gift card.

“We’ve been getting very good responses,” Foster said. “Students and their parents have been consenting, and we are very encouraged by the responses we’ve seen so far.”

At the beginning of the study, the students participating will have their blood pressure taken, their height, weight and waist size measured and blood drawn to check their glucose levels, among other things.

They will undergo a similar screening at the end of the study when they are in eighth grade. In most of the participating schools, the parents will have access to a report on the health screenings.

The results of the study won’t be completed for nearly three years, when the children graduate from middle school.

Rob Czyzewicz can be reached at rczyzewicz@temple.edu.

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