Online weight-loss study seeks to educate parents

School of Medicine obesity researchers are recruiting families for an online program aimed at young children that targets healthy eating and physical activity.

The 10-month study will evaluate the effectiveness of Food for Thought, an investigational, Internet-based program for parents of overweight 2- to 6-year-olds.


“The computer intervention teaches parents and caregivers to provide healthy food and activity choices for their children,” said Denise E. Wilfley, Ph.D., principal investigator. “Children in this very young age group already are drinking sugar-sweetened beverages. They’re watching television, which exposes them to food industry advertising and conditions them to want food and drinks that often aren’t healthy.”

Obesity is a problem for many Americans, including young children. About one-fifth of U.S. children are either overweight or obese, which puts them at very high risk for obesity as adults. Among those who are overweight, 65 percent of white girls and 84 percent of black girls grow up to be obese women. Some 71 percent of overweight white boys and 82 percent of overweight black boys become obese men.

As children grow into overweight and obese adults, they face mounting medical complications such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. By intervening at younger ages, the investigators say it may be easier to alter a child’s activity patterns and dietary habits so that young children may develop long-lasting healthy eating and activity behaviors. But young children don’t have the power to control their own environment, so parents are the cornerstone of the program.

“Food for Thought encourages parents to change the structure of their own eating and activity patterns,” said Wilfley, professor of psychiatry, of medicine, of pediatrics and of psychology. “There are some data to suggest that as parents increase their intake of fruits and vegetables, children will eat fewer so-called ‘red foods’ — calorie-dense and non-nutritious things such as fried foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, chips and cheese doodles.”

Wilfley said it may seem odd to ask people to sit at a computer to lose weight, but said previous Internet-based treatments for overweight and obese adults and adolescents have worked. The program also is intended to be convenient for parents and caregivers because they have access to the material anytime and do not have to worry about traveling to a weekly clinic appointment.

Parents are asked to log on to a Web site for about an hour each week for 12 weeks. The Web site provides tips and strategies to help parents and children eat less and exercise more. Parents also are asked to monitor their child’s eating and activity throughout the week and to weigh themselves and their children at least once each week.

The investigators plan to recruit 60 families with overweight children. All must have regular access to the Internet. Half of the families in the study will be randomly assigned to the investigational Food for Thought intervention. The rest will visit a more general, healthy-living Web site called Bright Futures, put together by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

For more information, call study coordinator Anna Vannucci at 286-1886 or e-mail