Report: Surprising Decline in Obesity Rates Among Low-Income Children

In an extremely encouraging development, a new report is revealing a decline in the obesity rates among low-income preschoolers after years of concentrated efforts on several fronts to improve the health of America’s children.

The obesity rate among low-income preschoolers declined by small but statistically significant amounts in 19 states and U.S. territories between 2008 and 2011, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released yesterday.

“This is the first time we have this many states in the U.S. showing a decline,” said Heidi Blanck, a senior researcher at the CDC, told the New York Times. “Until now, it has been a patchwork.”

The new report, based on the country’s largest set of health data for children, used weight and height measurements of 12 million children, ages 2 to 4, who are participants in federally funded nutrition programs.

The data allowed the CDC to gain the most detailed picture of obesity among low-income Americans. The report included data from 40 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands. Ten states were not included because of incomplete data. 

“We are excited because we have seen so much work going on in the past several years at the local, state, and national level, and we believe these changes are beginning to make a difference,” Blanck told NBC News.

Children with a body mass index in the 95th percentile or greater for their age and sex were categorized as obese.

Among the government initiatives are first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to reduce childhood obesity; improvements in the nutritional content of the food provided by the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); and growth in the number of U.S. hospitals enrolled in the World Health Organization’s Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, which encourages new moms to breastfeed.

“We know that breastfeeding leads to healthy weight in the first year,” said Blanck.

As part of her “Let’s Move” campaign, the first lady even brought together a number of artists to produce a hip-hop album, complete with 19 songs and 10 music videos, in conjunction with the Partnership for a Healthier America and Hip-Hop Public Health.

The album is scheduled to be released on Sept. 30 and features such artists as Run DMC, Ashanti, Doug E. Fresh and Jordin Sparks.

Still, some researchers were skeptical that a government initiative could make a difference.

Tom Baranowski, professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, said obesity has as much to do with genes as it does with behavior.

“It could be that we are hitting some sort of a biological limit,” he said to the Times, in which “all those who are genetically predisposed to being obese already are.”

“We’ve seen isolated reports in the past that have had encouraging trends, but this is the first report to show declining rates of obesity in our youngest children,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the CDC. “We are going in the right direction for the first time in a generation.”

“We can’t prove what are the changes in environment and policy that led to” the declining rates, Frieden said. But he added that it was hard to believe that the government policies now in place “aren’t having a big role here.”

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