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School obesity-prevention program may reduce medical costs, study says

Weaving nutrition and exercise lessons into middle-school classrooms can reduce eating disorders among girls and ultimately save medical costs, concludes a new study by Boston researchers published in the August issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

The researchers analyzed data from an earlier study conducted at 10 Massachusetts middle schools, including five that adopted an obesity prevention program called Planet Health, and five that did not.

The researchers, using complex economic analysis, estimated that $14,000 in medical costs were saved among the 254 girls who received the lessons, by averting the costs of treating obesity and eating disorders. They figured into that analysis the cost of the Planet Health program, which was developed at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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Planet Health teaches children about healthy foods, limiting TV and other screen time, and increasing their physical activity.

The data from the earlier study showed that girls, aged 10 to 14, in the schools with the Planet Health lessons were about half as likely as girls in the schools without the program to begin purging, such as throwing up after eating, or using diet pills to control their weight.

Bulimia Nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by binge eating and purging, typically starts in adolescence.

The researchers did not actually track the students’ progress after the two-year obesity prevention program, but worked with data from that earlier study.

Based on the current knowledge about how such eating disorders progress in young women, the researchers then calculated that one case of bulimia would be prevented by the age of 17 among the 254 girls in the group that received the obesity prevention program.

Boys, it turned out, were not affected one way or the other by the program, the researchers found.

“We don’t know why there was a difference,’’ said S. Bryn Austin, a social epidemiologist at Children’s Hospital Boston, and senior author of the study. “It may be that girls may be more attuned at that age to health messages and thinking about what they ate.’’

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Austin, who specializes in adolescent medicine, said that if obesity prevention programs are not structured properly, they can create a sense of blame, and may actually contribute to eating disorders.

Austin’s team estimated that if the obesity-prevention program they studied were expanded to 100 schools, that could save the health care system about $680,000.

“It’s very expensive to treat Bulimia Nervosa, very expensive for individual and their families, and it’s very expensive for society in medical costs,’’ Austin said.

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