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Nutrition lessons for girls seem to pay off

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / August 2, 2011

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Weaving nutrition and exercise lessons into middle-school classrooms can reduce eating disorders among girls and ultimately save medical costs, a study by Boston researchers concludes.

The researchers analyzed data from an earlier study 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 included in their analysis the cost of Planet Health, developed at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Planet Health teaches children about healthy foods, limiting TV and other screen time, and increasing physical activity. The study was published in the August issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

The data from the earlier study showed that girls, ages 10 to 14, in the schools with Planet Health 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.

Combining data from the earlier study with research on how eating disorders progress in young women, the researchers calculated that one case of bulimia would be prevented by the age of 17 among the 254 girls who participated in the obesity prevention program.

Boys, it turned out, were not affected 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.’’

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 was expanded to 100 schools, there would be about $680,000 in health care savings.

“It’s very expensive to treat bulimia nervosa, very expensive for individuals and their families, and it’s very expensive for society in medical costs,’’ Austin said.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

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