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Leading health experts join fight against childhood obesity

20 April 2016
New Centre pursues research into health in early childhood

A world-first research centre exclusively focused on tackling the childhood obesity epidemic will launch this week at the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre (CPC).

infant child foot

Globally renowned experts from seven universities across Australia, New Zealand and the UK will join forces through the new Centre of Research Excellence in the Early Prevention of Obesity in Childhood, to be housed at the CPC.

The new NHMRC-funded Centre will pursue cutting-edge research into the prevention of obesity in childhood, examining the crucial early years of life to better understand the importance of good nutrition, exercise and the effects of screen time in children aged zero to five.

"Currently one in five children in Australia is already affected by overweight or obesity by the time they start school. By just focusing on intervening at primary school level, it's already too late," said Director of the Centre Professor Louise Baur from Sydney Medical School.

"The first few years of life are really vital for establishing patterns for good health, wellbeing and happiness across the lifespan." 

Significant changes in our broader environment have made it harder for children to eat well and be as active as they might have been a generation ago.
Professor Louise Baur

"We know that behaviours that are really important for lifelong health and wellbeing – eating well, being active and sleeping patterns – are all established in early childhood. Intervening early and knowing how best to support parents in this crucial phase is essential in raising healthy children."

For the first time, leading researchers will share data from existing trials – including from the first worldwide randomised trials into childhood obesity prevention – to help develop new methods and tools to monitor obesity-related behaviours in young children.

The $2.5 million Centre, which is funded until 2020, will bring together specialists from a variety of disciplines including paediatricians, dietitians, health experts, economists and exercise physiologists, bringing a multidisciplinary approach to the complex childhood obesity problem.

"It's currently very difficult to measure at the population level the kinds of activities young children are engaged in: what they are eating, how much they're exercising, how much screen time they're exposed to and the amount they are sleeping," said Professor Baur.

"This information provides vital clues for policymakers and health practitioners, helping them to devise more effective public interventions on wide-ranging issues related to childhood obesity, from improving babies' sleeping patterns to decreasing the amount of screen time."

Another aim of the research group is to assess the economic impacts of good health and nutrition in early life and the flow-on effects into adulthood.

"Very few obesity preventions in early childhood have been subjected to economic evaluation, and yet information on cost-effectiveness, equity, affordability and sustainability are all vital to decisions about program implementation," said Professor Baur.

"This Centre will make a substantial contribution to ending the burden of childhood obesity in Australia and internationally by addressing these significant knowledge gaps, and will help to translate world-leading research into effective and targeted policy programs to reverse the concerning upward trends in childhood obesity."

The CRE in the Early Prevention of Obesity in Childhood will officially launch with a half-day seminar on Thursday 21 April, presented by the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre

Emily Cook

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