Obesity Rates In Young Children Down Over The Past Ten Years
December 26, 2012

Obesity Rates In Young Children Down Over The Past Ten Years

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

With about one in three children in the US now being overweight, an important turn may have just been made in the growing obesity epidemic. A new study by researchers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a slight decline in obesity among 2- to 4-year-olds in poor families. The finding offers hope that the obesity epidemic has reached a plateau in that particular group and is starting to reverse the trend.

The finding comes as the result of a study of height and weight measurements of some 27 million children who were part of the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program, which provides subsidies to low-income mothers and their children up to the age of 5.

“We are very encouraged by this data,” said study author Heidi M. Blanck, PhD, of the CDC. “It's pretty exciting and a nice turning of the tide. But we have to stay vigilant or it will go in the other direction.”

The study, published Dec. 25 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), looked at data from 30 states and the District of Columbia and covered the years from 1998 to 2010. The study found that obesity in children aged 2 to 4 declined to 14.9 percent in 2010, down from 15.2 percent in 2003. Extreme obesity also declined, dropping to 2.07 percent in 2010 from 2.22 percent in 2003.

“The declines we´re presenting here are pretty modest, but it is a change in direction,” said Blanck. “We were going up before. And this data shows we´re going down.”

Although the changes may seem small and insignificant, when you factor in the size of the study, more than 27 million children, any downward trend makes for huge health implications. Even just a drop in one tenth of a percentage point represents nearly 27,000 children in the study population alone who are no longer obese or extremely obese, said the researchers.

Being obese as a child not only increases the risk of early-life health problems, but also dramatically increases the likelihood of being obese later in life, which can lead to a host of debilitating diseases including cancer, diabetes and heart disease. And childhood obesity, some being as young as 2 years old and extremely obese, has been especially high among low-income families.

First Lady Michelle Obama has made battling childhood obesity a number one priority, with public health agencies and officials following her lead. However, the new findings indicate early childhood obesity rates were beginning their decline nearly a decade ago. Still, prevention strategies put in place to encourage healthier eating and increased activity, can only help.

There´s a lot families can also do to encourage healthier lifestyles for their children. These include getting their children more active during the day with less time in front of the TV or computer screen. “Walk the family dog together to get exercise,” said Blanck.

Also, replacing sugary drinks with zero-calorie flavored water and making fruits and vegetables more readily available can really help keep dangerous pounds at bay. “We know that childhood obesity tracks into adulthood, so it's important to make these changes early and maintain them,” she added.

While some are finding the results “encouraging,” William Muinos, MD, of Miami Children´s Hospital, said he has not seen those encouraging results stream down into his patients yet. “My childhood obesity clinic is growing in leaps and bounds,” he noted. “We can do a lot better.”

Shari Barkin, MD, a pediatrics professor at Vanderbilt University, also said she is not convinced that obesity rates are on a downward trend yet.

“I'm heartened because we are holding our own. It is good news that we have stabilized, but these current rates, even stabilized, are unacceptable,” she told WebMD´s Denise Mann.

Barkin´s advice to her patients is to aim for 30 minutes of physical activity each day. “More is great, but we should all start here,” she explained. “The best way to get preschoolers active is to get the family involved. Parents are the best teachers.”

Blanck is sticking to her guns. She did note, however, that it remains unclear what drove the decline. She did offer hypotheses. Breastfeeding, which is known to lead to healthier weight gain for young children, has increased since 2000. She noted the percentage of 6-month-olds still breastfeeding has increased to 47.7 percent among children born in 2009, up from 34.2 percent among those born in 2000.

And breastfeeding in low-income homes has risen over the years as well. In 1980, only 28 percent of infants from those families had ever been breastfed, compared to a whopping 66 percent in 2011.

Blanck said changes in the environment may have also played a role, like those outlined by a report about food marketing practices released by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Friday.

The FTC found that the amount of money spent on food marketing to children declined by nearly 20 percent from 2006 to 2009, with the biggest drop in TV advertising. The report also found that cereals marketed to children ages 2 to 11 had about a gram less sugar per serving in 2009 than in 2006 and slightly more whole grain.

Marketing of cereals with the most sugar–those with more than 13 grams of sugar per serving–was eliminated between 2006 and 2009, according to the report.

However, drinks marketed to children still average more than 20 grams of added sugar per serving. Most of the improvements in beverages during the study period were of those sold in schools, according to the report.