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Study: Kids more likely to listen to peers on obesity

When older kids teach younger ones about nutrition and the benefits of exercise, the little ones seem to lose weight and learn about healthy living, Canadian researchers report.

A program in Manitoba elementary schools called Healthy Buddies helped heavy kids lose an average of half an inch off their waist and increased their knowledge of diet and exercise, the study found.

"Engaging older youth in delivering health messages to younger peers is an effective method for preventing weight gain, improving knowledge of healthy living and increasing self-esteem," said lead researcher Jonathan McGavock, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba. "The effects of this peer mentoring model of healthy living promotion is particularly effective for overweight children."

This approach, detailed online in Monday's issue of the journal JAMA Pediatrics, could help curb the obesity epidemic among young children in North America, he said. The percentage of U.S. children aged 6 to 11 considered obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

McGavock said younger children see older children as role models, which is why their advice is taken more seriously than when the same message is delivered by adults. "Proper role modeling of healthy behaviors should be a key objective of elementary schools," he said.

Dr. David Katz of the Yale University Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Conn., said he wasn't surprised by the findings. "In my many interactions with parents regarding the importance of good nutrition in childhood, one of the more frequent protests over the years has been peer pressure," Katz said. "Parents, it seems, often feel powerless to overcome the negative influence of peers eating badly." -- HealthDay