Childhood obesity is a global epidemic and rising trends in overweight and obesity are apparent in both developed and developing countries. Available estimates for the period between the 1980s and 1990s show the prevalence of overweight and obesity in children increased by a magnitude of two to five times in developed countries (e.g. from 11% to over 30% in boys in Canada), and up to almost four times in developing countries (e.g. from 4% to 14% in Brazil). The goal of this synthesis research study was to develop best practice recommendations based on a systematic approach to finding, selecting and critically appraising programmes addressing prevention and treatment of childhood obesity and related risk of chronic diseases.
An international panel of experts in areas of relevance to obesity provided guidance for the study. This synthesis research encompassed a comprehensive search of medical/academic and grey literature and the Internet covering the years 1982–2003. The appraisal approach developed to identify best practice was unique, in that it considered not only methodological rigour, but also population health, immigrant health and programme development/evaluation perspectives in the assessment. Scores were generated based on pre-determined criteria with programmes scoring in the top tertile of the scoring range in any one of the four appraisal categories included for further examination. The synthesis process included identification of gaps and an analysis and summary of programme development and programme effectiveness to enable conclusions to be drawn and recommendations to be made.
The results from the library database searches (13 158 hits), the Internet search and key informant surveys were reduced to a review of 982 reports of which 500 were selected for critical appraisal. In total 158 articles, representing 147 programmes, were included for further analysis. The majority of reports were included based on high appraisal scores in programme development and evaluation with limited numbers eligible based on scores in other categories of appraisal. While no single programme emerged as a model of best practice, synthesis of included programmes provided rich information on elements that represent innovative rather than best practice under particular circumstances that are dynamic (changing according to population subgroups, age, ethnicity, setting, leadership, etc.). Thus the findings of this synthesis review identifies areas for action, opportunities for programme development and research priorities to inform the development of best practice recommendations that will reduce obesity and chronic disease risk in children and youth.
A lack of programming to address the particular needs of subgroups of children and youth emerged in this review. Although immigrants new to developed countries may be more vulnerable to the obesogenic environment, no programmes were identified that specifically targeted their potentially specialized needs (e.g. different food supply in a new country). Children 0–6 years of age and males represented other population subgroups where obesity prevention programmes and evidence of effectiveness were limited. These gaps are of concern because (i) the pre-school years may be a critical period for obesity prevention as indicated by the association of the adiposity rebound and obesity in later years; and (ii) although the growing prevalence of obesity affects males and females equally; males may be more vulnerable to associated health risks such as cardiovascular disease. Other gaps in knowledge identified during synthesis include a limited number of interventions in home and community settings and a lack of upstream population-based interventions. The shortage of programmes in community and home settings limits our understanding of the effectiveness of interventions in these environments, while the lack of upstream investment indicates an opportunity to develop more upstream and population-focused interventions to balance and extend the current emphasis on individual-based programmes.
The evidence reviewed indicates that current programmes lead to short-term improvements in outcomes relating to obesity and chronic disease prevention with no adverse effects noted. This supports the continuation and further development of programmes currently directed at children and youth, as further evidence for best practice accumulates. In this synthesis, schools were found to be a critical setting for programming where health status indicators, such as body composition, chronic disease risk factors and fitness, can all be positively impacted. Engagement in physical activity emerged as a critical intervention in obesity prevention and reduction programmes.
While many programmes in the review had the potential to integrate chronic disease prevention, few did; therefore efforts could be directed towards better integration of chronic disease prevention programmes to minimize duplication and optimize resources. Programmes require sustained long-term resources to facilitate comprehensive evaluation that will ascertain if long-term impact such as sustained normal weight is maintained. Furthermore, involving stakeholders in programme design, implementation and evaluation could be crucial to the success of interventions, helping to ensure that needs are met.
A number of methodological issues related to the assessment of obesity intervention and prevention programmes were identified and offer insight into how research protocols can be enhanced to strengthen evidence for obesity interventions. Further research is required to understand the merits of the various forms in which interventions (singly and in combination) are delivered and in which circumstances they are effective. There is a critical need for the development of consistent indicators to ensure that comparisons of programme outcomes can be made to better inform best practice.