Almost one in five U.S. children is obese, according to estimates by the National Institutes of Health — a number that has increased four-fold in the last 40 years. To combat this epidemic, NIH has launched a $72.5 million, two-part initiative to determine which practices keep children’s weights healthy.

One part of the initiative, the Childhood Obesity Prevention and Treatment Research program, will use $49.5 million over seven years to fund obesity prevention and obesity treatment clinical trials at Vanderbilt University, Case Western Reserve University, Stanford University and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. The trials will test a variety of prevention strategies, such as encouraging physical activity and promoting eating fruits and vegetables, among low-income, ethnically diverse preschool children. They will also test treatment therapies, such as teaching kids and parents to break bad eating habits, among obese children ages 7 to 14.

Effective interventions will require alliances among communities, schools, parents and the kids themselves, says Simone French, PhD, a behavioral epidemiologist and principal investigator of the program’s prevention trials at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Communities need to provide, promote and support affordable, healthy food options; parents need to buy into healthy eating; and schools need to better educate children on the importance of nutrition, as well as make healthy food available in the lunchroom.

The second part of NIH’s initiative is designed to help build those alliances: NIH has awarded a five-year, $23 million grant to the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, to study the efficacy of community-based childhood obesity reduction programs that already operate in 300 communities nationwide. Researchers hope to tease out which aspects of these programs work best and could be replicated elsewhere.

—M. Price