In a departure from past recommendations, a federal task force is urging primary-care physicians to encourage obese children to enroll in high-intensity treatment programs to lose weight and learn healthy eating and exercise habits.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, sponsored by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, is recommending the policy in response to a new research review that found that when obese children receive more than 25 hours of behavioral treatment over a six-month period, they are able to lose weight, which should reduce their risks for future health problems.

Effective programs tend to offer counseling, encourage physical activity, teach healthy eating patterns and enlist parents, says task force member David Grossman, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and research investigator at the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle.

“Those interventions that involve families appear to be more successful,” says Grossman.

The group, however, was not able to find sufficient evidence for the effectiveness of programs where children receive less than 25 hours of treatment over the course of six months, programs for children under age 6 or programs for children who are overweight but not obese. However, Grossman hopes researchers will develop effective interventions for these children in the coming years.

“There’s a real opportunity here for investigators, particularly new investigators, to jump into an area where there are clear, identified needs and where their research will have a clear policy impact,” Grossman says.

—S. Dingfelder