First Lady Michelle Obama recently unveiled an anti-​​childhood obe­si­ty­cam­paign she is leading. Over the past three decades, child­hood obe­sity rates in America have tripled; nearly one third of chil­dren in America are now over­weight or obese. Jes­sica Hoffman, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences who spe­cial­izes in school-​​based pre­ven­tion of child­hood obe­sity, dis­cusses this urgent health issue and explains what it will take to stop the cycle.

Do you think that the First Lady’s ini­tia­tive has the poten­tial to make an impact?
It’s ter­rific that Mrs. Obama has decided to bring atten­tion to this very impor­tant issue that affects so many chil­dren and ado­les­cents in this country. Given her posi­tion and her vis­i­bility, her ambi­tious cam­paign does have the poten­tial to make a sig­nif­i­cant impact. How­ever, it is impor­tant to remember that the obe­sity epi­demic is com­plex. Mrs. Obama rec­og­nizes that this issue will take time to address, will require the allo­ca­tion of sig­nif­i­cant resources and the par­tic­i­pa­tion of all seg­ments of society — indi­vid­uals, com­mu­ni­ties, gov­ern­ment and busi­ness — working together.

The ini­tia­tive focuses on four areas — healthy lunches, phys­ical exer­cise, access to afford­able healthy food options and a mar­keting cam­paign to pub­li­cize it all. Is there any­thing missing?
These four areas are all very impor­tant to address as part of a com­pre­hen­sive obe­sity pre­ven­tion strategy. Chil­dren eat many meals and snacks in schools, so having healthful, good tasting food that they want to eat is impor­tant for phys­ical health and optimal learning. Like­wise, making healthy, good-​​tasting foods the easy option because they’re afford­able and acces­sible will make it easier for fam­i­lies to eat better. This is dif­fi­cult because healthy foods tend to be more expen­sive, time-​​consuming to pre­pare and not readily avail­able in many com­mu­ni­ties, so the food industry needs to play a role.
How­ever, healthy eating is only part of the equa­tion. Focusing atten­tion on pro­moting phys­ical edu­ca­tion and recess for all kids in school is also very impor­tant.
And when kids watch tele­vi­sion, they are bom­barded with adver­tise­ments for junk food.
Clearly, a serious com­pre­hen­sive approach to obe­sity pre­ven­tion needs to include efforts to curb children’s expo­sure to these types of ads.

What are the largest fac­tors con­tributing to child­hood obe­sity?
Obe­sity rates have sky­rock­eted over the past three decades, meaning the largest con­trib­u­tors to the problem are rooted in envi­ron­mental fac­tors. Eating too many calo­ries is a major con­trib­utor. A lot of these calo­ries come from drinking large quan­ti­ties of sugar-​​sweetened bev­er­ages and eating large food por­tions that con­tain a lot of fat and sugar. High-​​calorie foods are cheap, readily avail­able and tasty, making them very dif­fi­cult to resist. Our envi­ron­ment is also engi­neered for us to get very little phys­ical activity, which is also a large con­trib­utor to the problem.

Northeastern’s involve­ment in Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures — the ini­tia­tive aimed at curbing child­hood obe­sity in sev­eral Boston neigh­bor­hoods — was one of the first pro­grams of its kind in the nation. What are the pre­lim­i­nary find­ings from the pro­gram?
Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures aims to edu­cate preschool care­givers and par­ents about the impor­tance of healthy eating and phys­ical activity, and pro­vide young chil­dren with new oppor­tu­ni­ties to be active.
Our ini­tial data shows that all of the pro­gram com­po­nents were imple­mented suc­cess­fully, and that care­givers who par­tic­i­pated in nutri­tion edu­ca­tion work­shops were more com­mitted to making behav­ioral changes related to healthy eating and phys­ical activity for their fam­i­lies. Finally, we showed that chil­dren who par­tic­i­pated in the Open Gym pro­gram were very phys­i­cally active when they attended.

Your research focuses on pre­venting child­hood obe­sity through school pro­grams. What has been the most suc­cessful tactic in your research thus far?
It can be dif­fi­cult to imple­ment child­hood obe­sity pre­ven­tion pro­gram­ming in schools because of all the com­peting edu­ca­tional pri­or­i­ties. I’ve found that it is crit­ical to design pro­grams that are easy and fun to imple­ment, are time effi­cient and are con­nected to other learning goals. One strategy that I use is having many people in the school serve as pro­gram imple­menters so that no one person is over­bur­dened, and chil­dren hear the mes­sage from mul­tiple sources.

Cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago have launched anti-​​obesity cam­paigns over the years, yet the obe­sity rates in both chil­dren and adults con­tinue to rise. What will it take to make a lasting change?
It will prob­ably take sus­tained efforts over sev­eral gen­er­a­tions to make a lasting change because it involves changing the way we live.
With the help of fed­eral stim­ulus funds and Mrs. Obama’s new cam­paign, more com­mu­ni­ties will be launching anti-​​obesity ini­tia­tives in the near future. These efforts will not only ben­efit the com­mu­ni­ties where they are imple­mented, but they will also help us iden­tify what approaches work best in addressing obe­sity pre­ven­tion.
In order to make lasting changes, all seg­ments of society need to be involved in this move­ment, and need to invest over the long term. The result will be healthier chil­dren, lower health care costs and a more pro­duc­tive society.

To read more about Pro­fessor Hoffman’s research, please visit: http://​www​.north​eastern​.edu/​b​o​u​v​e​/​f​a​c​u​l​t​y​/​b​l​o​m​h​o​f​f​m​a​n​_​j​.​h​tml

For more infor­ma­tion about Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures, please visit: http://​www​.north​eastern​.edu/​s​t​o​n​y​b​r​o​o​k​/​h​e​a​l​t​h​y​k​i​d​s​2​.​h​tml