Published: 23-07-2018 11:23 | Updated: 07-09-2018 12:21

Europe’s biggest research project to stop childhood obesity

STOP, the most comprehensive European project in the field of childhood obesity, has just begun. It involves 31 organisations from 16 countries. Karolinska Institutet is present as the sole Swedish partner.

Paulina NowickaPaulina Nowicka, docent i pediatrisk vetenskap vid institutionen för klinisk vetenskap, intervention och teknik (CLINTEC), ansvarar för STOP-projektet (Science and Technology in Childhood Obesity Policy) vid Karolinska Institutet. Hon forskar bland annat om barnfetma, matvanor och effektiva interventioner tidigt i livet.

Paulina Nowicka, associate professor in paediatric science at the Department of Clinical Science, Intervention and Technology (CLINTEC), is in charge of the STOP project at Karolinska Institutet. STOP stands for Science and Technology in childhood Obesity Policy. Her research fields include childhood obesity, eating habits and effective early-year interventions.

There is a trend towards more people being overweight from childhood onwards. This may result in over one third of adults in certain European countries being overweight by 2025. How will the STOP project turn this tide?

“As it has proved very difficult to treat obesity in adults, teenagers and school-age children, we should offer early-year intervention,” comments Paulina Nowicka. “By meticulously evaluating the efficiency of measures in early childhood (up to 5 years old), this study will fill current gaps in what we know about evidence-based obesity treatment. Only a few studies have done this” she adds.

The project will be investigating early signs of biological changes caused by behaviour that leads to obesity. A pilot study in Sweden, Spain and Romania is to test if, especially in areas with few resources, digital technology can help very young obese children and their families achieve sustainable improvements in body weight.

The project will involve the food industry and other commercial bodies in preventive activities. In this connection, it will also investigate the opportunities for European governments to use, for example, taxes, nutritional value statements and marketing restrictions in respect of foodstuffs and drinks.

The proportion of children with obesity has more than doubled in ten years. How is research tracing the causes of this?

“The answer to how we are to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic lies in, for example: our ability to identify the obesogenic exposure that has the greatest impact; employing effective measures and incentives to counteract such exposure; and, improving children’s ability to deal with said exposure,” relates Paulina.

Finding the causes of childhood obesity entails investigating behavioural changes in environments where there is a trend towards increased incidence of obesity (i.e. obesogenic environments). Descriptions of such environments include: building and transport patterns; access to foodstuffs; foodstuff prices and nutritional content; exposure to advertising; and, technologies used in children’s schoolwork and play (as also in adults’ work and leisure).

The STOP method sees external obesogenic influences as the ones that have most impact on children’s behaviour and their resultant health. Obesity is spreading rapidly amongst the children who are most exposed and vulnerable to these influences.

What shape has the collaboration between the parties in the research project taken and what is Karolinska Institutet’s role?

"The STOP project is coordinated by a group at Imperial College Business School in London. Karolinska Institutet is one of the project’s partner organisations. These latter include: other universities; research bodies; public authorities; international organisations (WHO and OECD); civil society organisations that deal with issues involving health and children," says Paulina Nowicka.

European consortia promoting innovation in the foodstuffs and health sectors are also invloved. Karolinska Institutet will be leading the part of the project dealing with healthcare.

Above all else, the aim is to carry out systematic analyses to establish best practice in health and medical care. There is to be special focus on: initiatives such as recruitment, compliance and monitoring; and, socioeconomically disadvantaged households and immigrant groups. Working from an earlier study (the More and Less Study) that proved effective in reducing Body Mass Index (BMI) or the risk of obesity, we also want to generate new evidence about interventions.

STOP (Science and Technology in childhood Obesity Policy) is financed by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme for “Healthy and safe foods and diets for all” (grant no. 774548). In total, the project is receiving SEK 100,000 million.