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4th March 2024

Driving down childhood obesity in Australia

Brittany Johnson

Encouraging a healthy lifestyle and teaching healthy habits to young children is critical in helping them establish healthy behaviours for life. 

However in Australia, one in five children experience overweight or obesity by the age of five, while young children are also falling short of meeting diet and activity recommendations. 

With support from The Hospital Research Foundation Group, Dr Brittany Johnson from Flinders University Caring Futures Institute aims to drive down this high statistic and improve the health and wellbeing of all infants and young children up to school age.  

Dr Johnson is developing evidence-based programs to prevent early childhood obesity to inform and change policies, programs, services and supports available across government and non-government health, education and community services. 

“Lots of programs have been tested, but they are often complex and don’t always reach the families who need them most,” Dr Johnson said. 

“We are trying to find the best ways to support families by understanding the various needs they have and trying to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach.” 

She is using existing research from around the world of early childhood obesity prevention programs that have been tried and tested with families. 

“We are looking closely at all the different parts of these programs, so which specific behaviours they target, for example infant milk feeding, food provision, active play, screen time and sleep, plus how they are delivered, and the specific strategies used with parents to change behaviour.” 

Additionally, Dr Johnson will be conducting a national survey to ask parents and caregivers for their feedback, particularly to find out what is important for different families. 

“We know prevention is better than a cure and I believe if we can support parents in helping set up healthy behaviours from the start, it is a step in the right direction to help reduce childhood obesity,” she said. 

Parent influence key to success 

Early childhood is a period where many behaviours can contribute to obesity, including poor eating habits and physical inactivity, and Dr Johnson believes parents have a crucial influence on this. 

“Parents are powerful role models and young children are most likely going to follow in their footsteps. Taking a family approach to being active with your kids, limiting screen use, setting up sleep routines and having healthy food available at home is a key foundation for success. 

“Parenting is hard, and I want to be able to find ways to support parents in promoting health behaviours that makes things as easy as possible.” 

Dr Johnson’s research is funded through a three-year Fellowship by The Hospital Research Foundation Group, helping to give children the best start in life. 

“Our goal is to make it easier for all parents and caregivers to promote healthy habits and behaviours for young children, through access to the best parts of programs embedded in the services families already engage with, like child healthy checks and parent groups.”