Can teachers be the secret weapon in the fight against childhood obesity?

A recent study published in the journal Nutrients examined the role of teachers in addressing childhood obesity.

Childhood obesity is an ongoing epidemic in the United States (US). Although the childhood obesity rate is slowly increasing, it is rapidly growing in underserved areas. To address this, resources from local, state, and federal health agencies have focused on various solutions, focusing on schools as the epicenter.

The inclusion of teachers in identifying and integrating solutions into program delivery can be beneficial to addressing obesity in children. However, prioritizing the health of these professionals is challenging, given the demands of classrooms and schools. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic emphasized the pressing need to attend to teachers’ well-being and health.

A 2022 report from the RAND Corporation revealed that many teachers had job-related stress and that wellness programming provided by employers was associated with reduced stress. The well-being of teachers can benefit students. Research suggests that a solid student-teacher relationship helps increase engagement and attendance, improve student well-being, decrease behavior concerns, and lead to positive outcomes.

Study: The Role of Teachers in Addressing Childhood Obesity: A School-Based Approach. Image Credit: Ground Picture / Shutterstock

About the study

The present study by researchers at the American University, Washington, evaluated teachers’ role in addressing childhood obesity. This five-year intervention project was initiated in 2017 and aimed to engage educators in teaching nutrition literacy skills for preventing obesity among students in elementary schools in Washington, DC. Teachers from two comparison and two intervention schools provided demographic data and completed the Teacher Health Surveys at baseline and after the intervention.

Responses were recorded on the Likert scale. An aggregate health score was calculated from the sum of variables (chronic condition, self-efficacy, health education beliefs, and overall health). The primary objective was to assess the effects of a professional development program in providing teachers with the knowledge and skills to integrate nutrition into their lessons.

Each session began with a well-being component, such as a physical activity break, mindfulness, or healthy eating, and subsequently, a sample lesson from “Serving up MyPlate: A Yummy Curriculum” was presented. Teachers in the intervention schools had to implement at least three nutrition lessons throughout the year. The Student Nutrition Literacy Survey was administered at baseline and post-intervention to assess student knowledge about nutrition, intent, and beliefs.


Overall, 92 teachers from the intervention and comparison schools completed the THS at baseline and after the intervention. Baseline demographic characteristics of teachers were similar between schools. Teachers were aged, on average, 36 years; 84.8% were females, and 68.5% were Black. The average aggregate health scores at baseline were not different by age, gender, teaching time, or grade taught.

Fifty-five intervention school teachers attended the professional development program and implemented 71 nutrition lessons in the classroom. Poisson regression analysis showed that job stress, professional development program attendance, and self-efficacy predicted the implementation of nutrition lessons.

Each additional increase in self-efficacy scores and each additional session attended were associated with a 25% and 48% higher likelihood of integrating nutrition lessons into the classroom curriculum, respectively. Self-efficacy and stress were inversely associated, i.e., teachers with high stress scored poorly on self-efficacy. The team observed an association between health scores, nutrition lesson implementation, and aggregate health scores.

There was an inverse correlation between lesson implementation and stress scores. Teachers attending sessions had lower stress scores than those who did not. The aggregate health score of teachers implementing three or more nutrition lessons was higher than those who did not. Students at intervention and comparison schools had similar baseline demographics, and participation was well-balanced by age, gender, and grade level.

Moreover, the baseline knowledge scores were not significantly different between students in comparison and intervention schools. However, scores significantly increased among intervention school students who received (nutrition) lessons from teachers who participated in sessions. Students receiving three or more nutrition lessons had about 10% higher scores than those receiving two or fewer lessons.


The findings demonstrated that a short-term professional development program for teachers to support their health and implement nutrition education was feasible and potentially sustainable. Notably, the improvements in knowledge about healthful eating may not necessarily reflect changes in behavior. Improving student health should start with solutions to support teacher health, and workplace professional development should be prioritized.

Empowering teachers with knowledge, resources, and skills to manage their health will enable them to be the medium and message in the classroom and the agents of change. Including teachers as collaborators in preventing childhood obesity will operationalize efforts to achieve health equity. Overall, the findings corroborate the feasibility of a professional development program as a potential strategy to support teacher well-being and obesity prevention efforts.

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