Preventing childhood obesity

February 28, 2013 Leslie Prenoslo and Ellen Pearce

Photo by Raymond Gariepy

School communities can be part of the solution

Many educators recognize that student health and success in school are interdependent. A common health issue facing school-aged children and youth today is childhood obesity (Box 1). Schools and school jurisdictions have many opportunities to be part of the larger solution to this complex health issue. Comprehensive School Health (CSH) is an approach the education sector can use to address childhood obesity and related health behaviours in an effective and coordinated manner.

Taking action in school communities: The CSH approach

Creating school environments that support healthy behaviours contributes to overall student success. Research shows that healthier students are more successful academically, better behaved in school, more involved in school activities and more content within their school community than students who are less healthy.[3],[4],[5],[6],[7],[8] By supporting improvements in students’ health behaviours, educators are also contributing to their success in the classroom.

CSH is an internationally recognized approach to building healthy school communities. Since this approach can be used to address any health issue within a school community, it provides a framework for improving healthy eating and active living, which contributes to the overall prevention of childhood obesity.

The CSH approach addresses school health issues in a holistic manner and involves taking action to address four distinct but interrelated pillars (Figure 1)[9]:

  • Social and Physical Environment
  • Teaching and Learning
  • Healthy School Policy
  • Partnerships and Services

Table 1 describes the four pillars of CSH and provides examples of strategies within each pillar that could be part of the solution to childhood obesity. The most effective approaches to improving healthy eating and active living among students will incorporate actions from all four pillars.

School communities can be part of a bigger solution

Eating too much food and less-healthy foods, coupled with an inactive lifestyle, can lead to weight gain in children, youth and adults alike, but the development of childhood obesity is determined by a complex and interacting system of factors that influence these individual behaviours.[10] For example, a child’s eating and activity behaviours can be influenced by the following characteristics[11]:

  • family characteristics, such as role modelling by parents and siblings, household income, and parental skills and knowledge;
  • community characteristics, such as school environment, availability and affordability of healthy foods, and accessible spaces that support active lifestyles; and
  • societal characteristics, such as policies related to food and nutrition, health care, transportation, social services, education and marketing.

By addressing these and other factors, it is possible to reduce the negative health outcomes associated with childhood obesity. Children and youth who are overweight and obese are at increased risk for a number of health conditions that were previously seen only in adults, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and joint problems.10 A child’s emotional health is also a cause for concern, as these children may experience discrimination, poor self-esteem, body image issues, depression and altered emotional development.[12] Children and youth who are overweight or obese are more likely to carry this weight into adulthood and to experience the accompanying health problems that develop with age.10

The complexity of childhood obesity necessitates a societal response with actions targeting settings where children and youth live, learn and play.3 Schools and school jurisdictions can play an important role in this broader response.

Support for building healthy communities

Alberta Health Services (AHS) staff members, including school health facilitators and health promotion coordinators (funded by Alberta Health), are available to assist school jurisdictions across the province in creating healthier school communities. AHS staff support school communities in improving healthy eating, active living and positive well-being among students, which contribute to the achievement of healthy body weights.

For more information about creating healthy school communities and to access support from an AHS staff member in your area, please contact

For more information on Comprehensive School Health (CSH) and resources available to support you, please visit


[1] Statistics Canada. 2012. “Overweight and Obesity in Children and Adolescents: Results from the 2009 to 2011 Canadian Health Measures Survey.” Health Reports 23, no. 3: 3–7. 

[2] Shields, M. 2005. “Measured Obesity: Overweight Canadian Children and Adolescents.”  Nutrition: Findings from the Canadian Community Health Survey Issue No. 1. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

[3] Basch, C. 2010. “Healthier Students Are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap.” Equity Matters: Research Review No. 6: 1–109.

[4] Lavin, A.T., G.R. Shapiro and K.S. Weill. 1992. “Creating an Agenda for School‐Based Health Promotion: A Review of 25 Selected Reports.” Journal of School Health 62, no. 6: 212–28.

[5] International Union for Health Promotion and Education. 2000. “The Evidence of Health Promotion Effectiveness: Shaping Public Health in a New Europe.” Health Education Research 15, no. 2: 233–35.

[6] World Health Organization Expert Committee on Comprehensive School Health Education and Promotion. 1997. Promoting Health Through Schools: Report of a WHO Expert Committee on Comprehensive School Health Education and Promotion.

[7] Symons, C.W., B. Cinelli, T.C. James and P. Groff . 1997. “Bridging Student Health Risks and Academic Achievement Through Comprehensive School Health Programs.” Journal of School Health 67, no. 6: 220–27.

[8] Kristjansson, A.L., I.D. Sigfusdottir, J.P. Allegrante and A.R. Helgason. 2009. “Adolescent Health Behavior, Contentment in School, and Academic Achievement.” American Journal of Health Behavior 33, no. 1: 69–79.

[9] Joint Consortium for School Health. 2008. What Is Comprehensive School Health?

[10] Public Health Agency of Canada. 2012. “A Federal, Provincial, and Territorial Framework for Action to Promote Healthy Weights.” (retrieved January 11, 2012).

[11] Huang, T.T., A. Drewnoski, S.K. Kumanyika and T.A. Glass. 2009. “Systems-Oriented Multilevel Framework for Addressing Obesity in the 21st Century.” Preventing Chronic Disease 6, no. 3. 

[12] Raine, K. 2004. “Overweight and Obesity in Canada: A Population Health Perspective.” Canadian Institute for Health Information.

Leslie Prenoslo and Ellen Pearce are members of the Healthy Child and Youth Development Team with Alberta Health Services.

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