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Tackling childhood obesity in South West Sydney

Jaryd (not his real name) is 11 years old and weighs 187kg. Aiya (not her real name) is two and has symptoms of pre-diabetes and high blood pressure. They are only two of the 44,000 children and young people (CYP) living in South West Sydney who are obese. For these CYP, childhood is often tainted with health problems including high blood pressure, liver disease, sleep disturbances and Type 2 diabetes. Coupled with these physical health conditions they are often socially marginalised, have lower self-esteem and poorer educational outcomes.

The Growing Healthy Kids initiative which commenced in June 2019 in SWS aims to help children like Aiya and Jaryd through a multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary approach. Aiming to reduce childhood obesity rates by five per cent in ten years, the initiative includes the expertise of dietitians, exercise physiology, social worker paediatrician, clinical nurse and clinical psychology. Together, they provide a program for 2-17 year-olds which includes trauma-informed targeted behavioural, dietary and physical activity interventions.

Faye Southcombe

Understanding the importance of evidence-based practice, dietitian and GHK team leader, Faye Southcombe, is undertaking a two-and a-half year randomised control study of the program.

“The trial will contribute to the evidence across the paediatric age spectrum building on the limited knowledge of the effectiveness of intervention in a culturally and socio-economically diverse population, as well as CYP with developmental and mental health disabilities.”

“Importantly, the study will look at individual variations in treatment response which will inform practice. The aim is to look at both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the program to help determine the best model of care,” explains Faye.

“We are building the research capacity within the team. At the end of the study we will have a rich data set and the skills to interrogate these.”

Tackling childhood obesity is not simple. Faye explains there are a multitude of factors affecting childhood obesity including early-life trauma, low socio-economic background, parenting capacity and knowledge.

The primary outcome of the research is a reduction in Body Mass Index which will be measured at enrolment, 6 months post-enrolment for both the treatment group and control group. It will also be measured at 12 months and 18 months after enrolment for the treatment groups.

While the program is in its infancy, it is envisaged that BMI won’t be the only benefit of the interventions. We hope to see changes in lifestyle behaviours like screen time, sleep, eating and activity habits, and also an increase in self-esteem, school engagement and hopefulness. We know if we change the habits the weight will follow. Faye acknowledges the difficulty in tackling childhood obesity but believes “small changes make big differences in these kids.”

For Jaryd, it already is. He’s lost 35kg in about nine months, loves swimming and heads to his local pool five days a week.

“He is engaged in school now and can predict a future for himself which is positive and worth hanging around for.”