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Interventions for preventing obesity in children

  • Review
  • Intervention




Obesity prevention is an international public health priority. The prevalence of obesity and overweight is increasing in child populations throughout the world, impacting on short and long-term health. Obesity prevention strategies for children can change behaviour but efficacy in terms of preventing obesity remains poorly understood.


To assess the effectiveness of interventions designed to prevent obesity in childhood through diet, physical activity and/or lifestyle and social support.

Search strategy

MEDLINE, PsycINFO, EMBASE, CINAHL and CENTRAL were searched from 1990 to February 2005. Non-English language papers were included and experts contacted.

Selection criteria

Randomised controlled trials and controlled clinical trials with minimum duration twelve weeks.

Data collection and analysis

Two reviewers independently extracted data and assessed study quality.

Main results

Twenty-two studies were included; ten long-term (at least 12 months) and twelve short-term (12 weeks to 12 months). Nineteen were school/preschool-based interventions, one was a community-based intervention targeting low-income families, and two were family-based interventions targeting non-obese children of obese or overweight parents.

Six of the ten long-term studies combined dietary education and physical activity interventions; five resulted in no difference in overweight status between groups and one resulted in improvements for girls receiving the intervention, but not boys. Two studies focused on physical activity alone. Of these, a multi-media approach appeared to be effective in preventing obesity. Two studies focused on nutrition education alone, but neither were effective in preventing obesity.

Four of the twelve short-term studies focused on interventions to increase physical activity levels, and two of these studies resulted in minor reductions in overweight status in favour of the intervention. The other eight studies combined advice on diet and physical activity, but none had a significant impact.

The studies were heterogeneous in terms of study design, quality, target population, theoretical underpinning, and outcome measures, making it impossible to combine study findings using statistical methods. There was an absence of cost-effectiveness data.

Authors' conclusions

The majority of studies were short-term. Studies that focused on combining dietary and physical activity approaches did not significantly improve BMI, but some studies that focused on dietary or physical activity approaches showed a small but positive impact on BMI status. Nearly all studies included resulted in some improvement in diet or physical activity. Appropriateness of development, design, duration and intensity of interventions to prevent obesity in childhood needs to be reconsidered alongside comprehensive reporting of the intervention scope and process.

Plain language summary

Interventions for preventing obesity in children

The current evidence suggests that many diet and exercise interventions to prevent obesity in children are not effective in preventing weight gain, but can be effective in promoting a healthy diet and increased physical activity levels.

Being very overweight (obese) can cause health, psychological and social problems for children. Children who are obese are more likely to have weight and health problems as adults. Programmes designed to prevent obesity focus on modifying one or more of the factors considered to promote obesity.

This review included 22 studies that tested a variety of intervention programmes, which involved increased physical activity and dietary changes, singly or in combination. Participants were under 18 and living in Asia, South America, Europe or North America. There is not enough evidence from trials to prove that any one particular programme can prevent obesity in children, although comprehensive strategies to address dietary and physical activity change, together with psycho-social support and environmental change may help. There was a trend for newer interventions to involve their respective communities and to include evaluations.

Future research might usefully assess changes made on behalf of entire populations, such as improvements in the types of foods available at schools and in the availability of safe places to run and play, and should assess health effects and costs over several years.

The programmes in this review used different strategies to prevent obesity so direct comparisons were difficult. Also, the duration of the studies ranged from 12 weeks to three years, but most lasted less than a year.