There may be new hope in the fight against obesity among American youth.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
has found the first evidence of a decline in the rate of childhood obesity. Obesity rates in 19 states fell slightly from 2008 to 2011 for low-income children between the ages of 2 and 4 years old.
The study included 12 million children from 40 states and the District of Columbia, many of whom were participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, a federal nutrition program for mothers and children under the age of five.
The most significant declines occurred in the states of Florida, Georgia, Missouri New Jersey and South Dakota, where the obesity rate fell by 1 percentage point. Reaching 2- to 4-year-olds is considered critical because overweight and obese children are five times as likely as children of normal weight to be overweight or abuse in adulthood, increasing their risk of heart disease and diabetes.
“We think we are turning the tide at least in the childhood obesity area,” said Heidi Blanck, CDC obesity prevention and control branch chief and a co-author of the report.
In a conference call with reporters, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, called the results a "bright spot" and a "tipping point."
"For the first time in a generation, we're seeing it go in the right direction in 2- to 4-year-olds," he said on a conference call with reporters, calling the changes "small but statistically significant." He was quick to add, "We're very, very far from being out of the woods."
Twenty-one states saw no significant change in their childhood obesity rates, according to the report, while three states—Tennessee, New Mexico and Pennsylvania—saw significant increases.
Ten states, including Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, Wyoming, Utah, Maine, Alaska and Texas, were not included in the study because they either lacked consistent data for the years studied or they changed their methodology, according to the CDC.
Blanck said researchers could not explain why declines occurred in some states while rates in others either remained flat or increased. She estimated part of the improvement had to do with a number of federal, state and local anti-obesity initiatives.
She said changes to the types of foods families on WIC are allowed to purchase has helped curb obesity within a population that has tended to be more vulnerable to the disease than other groups. Blanck also credited state childcare initiatives that focus on providing support to new mothers, as well as large local investments in obesity prevention resources.
“Though we cannot prove what are the changes in the environment and in policy that have led to that, it's hard to believe that things like much better policies in WIC, much better policies with encouraging child care … aren't having a big role here,” Frieden said.
Despite the successes, the report still paints a stark picture of the prevalence of the problem. One in eight preschool children, or 12%, is considered obese, with rates slightly higher among African-American and Hispanic pre-school children.
Overall, childhood obesity rates are relatively stable after soaring since the early 1980s. About 16.9% of children and teens were still considered obese in 2010, according to the latest data.
Results of the study drew praise from a number of anti-obesity advocates, including first lady Michelle Obama, whose “Let's Move!” campaign was developed with the goal of solving the problem of obesity within a generation, according to her website.
“Today's announcement reaffirms my belief that together, we are making a real difference in helping kids across the country get a healthier start to life,” Obama said in written statement. “We know how essential it is to set our youngest children on a path toward a lifetime of healthy eating and physical activity, and the more than 10,000 childcare programs participating in the Let's Move! Child Care initiative are doing vitally important work on this front. Yet, while this announcement reflects important progress, we also know that there is tremendous work still to be done to support healthy futures for all our children.”
In a statement regarding the report, Campaign to End Obesity co-founder Stephanie Silverman said the study's findings validated her organization's long-held belief of the economic and health benefits of investing in anti-obesity programs.
“Investing in policies to combat obesity are the ultimate win-win,” Silverman said. “In addition to the public health
benefits and the reduced prevalence of chronic medical conditions, there is also the potential to save billions of dollars in unnecessary medical costs associated with treating the more than 60 conditions commonly associated with obesity, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.”Follow Steven Ross Johnson on Twitter: @MHSjohnson