For over 40 years, the federal Head Start program has stimulated the minds of millions of low-income children at their most critical stages of development, preparing them to succeed in school and life. Recent research highlights that Head Start promotes far more than school readiness. A new study from the University of Michigan found that Head Start reduces childhood obesity. The findings from the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that obese and overweight preschool children who entered Head Start lost weight faster and reached a significantly healthier weight by kindergarten than preschoolers who were not in the program. Similarly, underweight preschoolers in Head Start gained weight faster than their counterparts who were not in Head Start.

Childhood obesity continues to be a leading public health concern. National data indicate that 8.4 percent of preschool-aged children are obese, with a higher rate of 14.2 percent among preschool-aged children residing in low-income households at or below the Federal Poverty Level. Childhood obesity exposes children to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes and a range of other health problems that have life-long consequences. Obese children are also at greater risk of suffering social and psychological problems, such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem. These conditions exact a significant toll on children as they grow into adolescence and adulthood, and costs society resources in health care and other costs.

The study indicates that several factors associated with the Head Start program may contribute to preventing childhood obesity, including the quality of meals and snacks provided in the Head Start program, which follows the requirements of the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which mandates that fruits and vegetables be provided at each meal. In addition, Head Start prohibits television viewing, a risk factor for preschool overweight, and promotes children’s access to continuous pediatric health care. The study also attributes reduced obesity and overweight among preschoolers in Head Start to the children’s increased ability to cope with stress and the reduction in behavioral problems and poor behavioral self-regulation. Moreover, the study indicates that Head Start, which provides free child care, may allow families to allocate limited financial resources to purchasing healthier food.

The study highlights that the benefits of Head Start extend far beyond preparing children for school, but also as an important strategy to prevent and treat childhood obesity, sparing children from a host of significant health problems, and saving society scarce resources in health care costs associated with the high rates of childhood and adult obesity.