(HealthDay News) — Children in the U.S. preschool Head Start program tend to have a healthier weight by kindergarten than similarly aged children not in the program, according to a new report published online January 12 in Pediatrics.
Julie Lumeng, MD, an associate professor at the University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development in Ann Arbor, and colleagues collected data on 43,748 Michigan preschool-age children between 2005–2013. More than 19,000 were in Head Start. Information on the others – 5,400 of whom were on Medicaid – came from two primary health care groups. Whether those children were in another preschool program wasn’t stated.
At the study’s start, about one-third of the Head Start children were obese or overweight, compared to 27% of those on Medicaid and fewer than 20% of children not on Medicaid. In their first year in Head Start, obese and overweight children lost weight faster than two comparison groups of children who weren’t in the program, the researchers found. Similarly, underweight children gained weight faster.
“Head Start programs must adhere to specific dietary guidelines,” Lumeng told HealthDay. “The children may be served healthier meals at Head Start than other children.” In addition, Head Start requires a certain amount of active play each day. “Thus, children attending Head Start may be getting more opportunities for physical activity than other children,” she explained. The daily routine might translate into less television time and more regular sleep schedules. “We know that better sleep is linked with less obesity,” she added. “It [also] may be that when kids go to Head Start, it reduces stress in the household and frees up time and resources at home to dedicate to healthier eating patterns.”