After decades of rising obesity rates in the United States, public health officials are finally seeing some small gains in efforts to curb the epidemic, at least among the nation's youngest citizens.
Childhood obesity rates among children ages 2 to 5 have declined 43 percent in the past decade, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), published in the Wednesday issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
These findings confirm the results of several smaller, more localized studies from around the country that have seen a similar reduction of obesity rates among children under 5, says Elsie Taveras, chief of general pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and an obesity expert.
While the study did not pinpoint the specific catalysts for this change, the following things may have played a role, Dr. Taveras suggests: changes to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which have reduced funding for juices and fatty foods in favor of whole fruits and vegetables, and Michelle Obama’s push for expanded nutrition and exercise programs in schools, which has recently been introduced to many child-care centers.
The first lady sees the findings as hopeful confirmation that her “Let’s Move!” campaign is gaining traction.
“I am thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years in obesity rates among our youngest Americans,” Mrs. Obama said in a statement. “With the participation of kids, parents, and communities in Let’s Move! these last four years, healthier habits are beginning to become the new norm.”
Previous studies have suggested that obesity frequently takes hold in early years and can carry through into later childhood and adulthood. CDC Director Tom Frieden is optimistic that the converse will prove true for this particular cohort.
“This confirms that at least for kids, we can turn the tide and begin to reverse the obesity epidemic,” Mr. Frieden said in a statement. “We continue to see signs that, for some children in this country, the scales are tipping. This report comes on the heels of previous CDC data that found a significant decline in obesity prevalence among low-income children aged 2 to 4 years participating in federal nutrition programs.”
While early-childhood obesity rates declined across demographics – from 14 to 8 percent since 2003 – obesity is more prevalent among minority children. That finding is also consistent with Taveras’s own research and practice.
“We are not seeing equal distribution of that beneficial effect,” she says. “Even among those 2-to-5-year-olds, if you look at children who are obese, there are some serious racial and ethnic differences.”
Across the board, roughly 1 in 12 young children are considered obese. Among blacks, that rate increases to 1 in 9 children, and it's higher still for Hispanic children (1 in 6).
“We might have done a really great job for a subpopulation, but we’re really not meeting the needs equally across the population,” Taveras says. “As we roll out initiatives for obesity prevention, we have to do that with a sense of equality.”
While the news bodes well for the nation’s toddlers and preschoolers, the decline has not extended to older children or adults. The researchers found that broader obesity rates have leveled off in recent years, with one-third of adults and 17 percent of older children weighing in as obese.
While Taveras would like to see that number start to decline, she does see hope in the fact that it has not continued to rise higher.
“That sense of a plateau is promising, especially after so many years where we were seeing such an increase in scope,” she says. “That’s incredibly promising."