Preventing childhood obesity in the UK: a realist review

This project aims to identify the key components of childhood obesity prevention interventions which can be implemented successfully in the UK.

Childhood obesity has been increasing rapidly in the UK for the last 30 years. National data shows that one fifth of 4-5 year olds and one third of 10-11 year olds weigh above the recommended range for their age (NHS Digital, 2017).

Children spend a quarter of their waking lives in schools. We know that schools can’t improve children’s health on their own, but the school setting presents a good opportunity for intervention.

We recently updated the Cochrane Review on preventing childhood obesity. This looks at a range of interventions aimed at preventing childhood obesity in children, including those based in schools.

The Cochrane Review tells us that some of these preventive interventions are beneficial in helping children maintain a healthy weight. But it doesn’t tell us which elements of an intervention might work, for which groups of children and under what circumstances.

Since the interventions included in these studies are often only funded for the duration of the research, this also raises questions about what happens to these interventions when the research funding ends.

So the question remains: what should an obesity prevention intervention – that can realistically be implemented and sustained in UK primary schools – look like?

Project aims

The project aims to identify the key components of childhood obesity prevention interventions, which can be implemented successfully in the UK.

To achieve this, we are carrying out a ‘realist review’. This is a novel approach to looking at evidence that focuses on understanding how each intervention works (or not), for whom and in which contexts.

The success of an intervention is affected by the context in which it takes place. This might include the different types of school, the level of available resources or the characteristics of the children (such as age or where they live). Our review will explore these factors, in order to identify what makes  an intervention successful and what things influence the success of its implementation.

Before formally starting the review, we wanted to know what primary school staff (children aged 4-11 years) thought they might be able to implement in their schools, so we asked them in an online survey (that’s still open). The findings from this survey are informing our study. They will help make our recommendations from the realist review more likely to be put into practice.

Anticipated impacts

This review will provide key information for UK decision-makers planning obesity prevention interventions in primary schools. We hope our review will also impact national policies.

Related research

This project builds on the update to the preventing childhood obesity Cochrane Review.

Lead collaborators

CLAHRC West staff

James Nobles

Dr James Nobles

  • Senior Research Associate in implementation

Dr Sharea Ijaz

Tess Moore

Tess Moore

Professor Russ Jago

Professor Russ Jago

Partners on this project

University of Bristol

The University of Bristol is internationally renowned and one of the very best in the UK, due to its outstanding teaching and research, its superb facilities and highly talented students and staff. Its students thrive in a rich academic environment which is informed by world-leading research. It hosts the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research.