Obesity rates among preschoolers are dropping in Georgia and elsewhere across the country for the first time in several years, according to a new government study.
The obesity rate among low-income Georgia preschoolers fell more than 1 percentage point, from 14.8 percent in 2008 to 13.2 percent in 2011, according to an analysis of the height and weight of children 2 to 4 years old in federally funded maternal and child-nutrition programs.
About one in eight preschoolers is obese in the United States. Obese kids are at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes and joint problems. Preschoolers who are overweight or obese are five times more likely than their normal-weight peers to be overweight or obese as adults.
The decline, while small, is “very meaningful,” according to lead author Ashley May, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The drop is significant, according to researchers, because it reverses a long-standing upward climb of obesity rates.
Going back to 1998, year after year, the obesity rate rose around a half of a percentage point. In 1998, the obesity rate in Georgia among low-income preschoolers stood at 9.4 percent, according to a 2009 CDC report examining obesity rates between 1998 and 2008. By 2003, the obesity rate jumped to 12.4 percent, and by 2008, it almost hit 15 percent.
But the most recent report, which analyzed data of about 11.6 million children that came from the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System, suggests the tide is turning. The study included 40 states and two U.S. territories (Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).
In addition to Georgia, the report found that Florida, Missouri, New Jersey, South Dakota and the U.S. Virgin Islands are seeing at least a 1 percentage point decrease in obesity rates. About a dozen more states saw a slight decrease. Twenty states and Puerto Rico held steady at their current rate. Obesity rates rose slightly in three states.
CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden pointed to healthy changes to the WIC program (the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program), which included, among other things, less juice and more fruits and vegetables, an increase in breastfeeding, and inspiration from first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign as playing roles in shifting the needle downward.
“It’s a bright spot for our nation’s young kids, but the fight is very far from over,” Frieden said in a recent news conference.
“Obesity is a complex problem, and we know addressing it isn’t going to be quick and simple,” Frieden said. “We know it’s not going to turn on a dime.”
May, the researcher, said it’s important to come together and build momentum and keep us moving in the right direction — from making it easier to buy fresh produce to providing safe drinking water at parks to schools opening gyms and playgrounds during non-school hours to allow more kids to play safely.
James Marks, senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropy devoted to public health, said the report provides especially welcome news because it shows important progress among populations at higher risk for obesity and adds to the growing list of places reporting declining rates.
“Together these signs of progress tell a clear story: We can reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. It isn’t some kind of unstoppable force,” Marks said in a blog entry about the study results.