Study: Parent-Only Education Helps Children Lose Weight

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Father and son (11-13) standing in sea, portrait

Before you even think about shipping your zaftig not-so-little ones off to fat camp, consider a new study published in the journal Obesity: when nutrition and exercise education was given only to parents, their children shed about the same amount of weight as kids who took part in the weight-loss classes with their parents.

“Our results showed that the parent-only group was not inferior in terms of child weight loss, parent weight loss and child physical activity,” study author Kerri N. Boutelle, an associate professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, said in a statement. (More on Time.com: Special Report: Overcoming Obesity)

The study involved 80 families with overweight or obese children aged 8 to 12. Half of the families entered a five-month education program with kids in tow, while the other 40 families attended parents-only classes. At the beginning and end of the five-month term, and at a follow-up six months later, researchers measured both parents’ and children’s body size as well as the kids’ daily caloric intake and physical activity.

In every measure aside from caloric intake, the families in the parent-only group showed as much improvement as those getting parent-and-child education. This is important to public-health experts because parent-only classes are more cost-effective and easier to implement. And given that nearly one-third of all American children are either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cheap and easy measures to reduce that rate are in high demand. (More on Time.com: Do Parents Discriminate Against Their Own Chubby Children?).

It has long been established that weight-loss education for families is effective at helping children lose weight and keep it off. A 1994 study published in Health Psychology found that about one-third of overweight and obese kids who attended educational classes in childhood had decreased the amount that they were overweight by 20% 10 years later, and 30% were no longer obese. But the new study indicates that even when the kids themselves are not directly educated — but their caretakers are — they can still benefit.

“While further research is needed, our work suggests that parent-only groups are a viable method for providing childhood obesity treatment,” wrote Boutelle. Indeed, she just received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to follow 150 additional families through 18-month programs.

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