Study Finds Healthier Weight Associated With Participation In Head Start Programs

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According to a new study published by the University of Michigan in the prestigious Journal of Pediatrics, preschool-aged children who joined the Head Start program while overweight or obese were significantly more likely to have a healthier weight status than the comparison group when entering Kindergarten.

The research, “Changes in Body Mass Index Associated With Head Start Participation,” found that children who joined the Head Start program while overweight or obese enjoyed a significantly healthier body mass index (BMI) by Kindergarten age than the comparison groups. Children who joined the Head Start program while underweight conversely experienced a healthy increase in their BMI. Per the study results, Head Start participants were less obese, less overweight, and less underweight at follow-up than children in the comparison groups.

Lead author and Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Dr. Lumeng, suggested a number of possible causes behind the changes. The Head State program, due to its adherence to federal regulations, may provide higher quality meals and snacks than what a child may receive in their own home or other facilities. The program provides structure and routine, potentially improving a child’s sleep patterns. They may also have more opportunities to exercise and move around, spending less time remaining sedentary. Lumeng also suggested that the program may be reducing stress for a child’s family, giving them more financial and psychological freedom to build a healthier environment at home.

For Lumeng, she hopes the study will open doors with policy makers looking to address the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States. “The individual parent or pediatrician might consider enrolling the overweight or obese child in Head Start as part of an obesity prevention or treatment plan. For policy makers looking for programs to support in order to achieve reduced prevalence of obesity and overweight in American preschoolers, Head Start may be one such program.”

Notes (¹):

– The study examined the heights and weights and heights of 19,023 children attending Head Start in the state of Michigan from 2005 to 2013. The comparison groups were composed of children in the same age groups seeing primary care physicians for regular check-ups.  The total study sample was 43, 748. The comparison group included children receiving and not-receiving Medicaid.

– Story information and quotes sourced from study and University of Michigan press release.

– Image sourced, Federal Head Start agency.

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