Another Sign of Progress on Childhood Obesity

Aug 6, 2013, 2:00 PM, Posted by Jim Marks

 A young girl eating an apple.

Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that obesity rates among young children from low-income families are falling in 18 states and one U.S. territory—and rising in only three states. 

What an important sign of progress for all of us working to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic! It’s especially terrific because it builds on recent positive news coming from all across the nation.

Childhood obesity rates are falling in states like West Virginia, Mississippi, New Mexico and California. They’re dropping in big cities like New York and rural areas like Vance and Granville Counties, North Carolina.

Today’s news is of falling obesity rates among children participating in federal health and nutrition programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program, better known as WIC. These are young children in low-income families. Children who have been at the highest risk for obesity and whose families have had the most limited chances to make healthy choices. So this is huge.

Together these signs of progress tell a clear story: we can reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. It isn’t some kind of unstoppable force. But no single change will do it. Communities and states that make strong, far-reaching changes to create a culture of health can achieve success.

We will reverse the childhood obesity epidemic only if leaders in all sectors help children and families make healthy choices in the places where they live, learn, work, and play. That means our schools and child care centers, neighborhoods, workplaces, places of worship, grocery stores, restaurants, and more.

The states and localities reporting signs of progress are extremely diverse, but they have one thing in common. Each has made child obesity prevention a priority, and they’ve been working at it for the past several years.

Declining obesity rates among preschool-age children in programs like WIC are the result of a similar focus. The research released today did not pinpoint the exact causes of progress, but two factors likely had an impact:

  • The 2008 overhaul of the WIC “food package”—Five years ago, WIC changed the mix of foods covered by the program. The changes encouraged families to buy more fruits and vegetables, with the goal of improving children’s health and nutrition. They increased allowances for whole grains and cereals while reducing reliance on high-fat dairy products. Grocery stores serving WIC moms and children changed their inventories to meet the new standards, benefitting not only WIC families but all members of the local community.
  • Improved nutrition and reduced screen time in child care centers—More and more cities and states have required child care providers to improve the nutritional quality of foods and drinks served to young children. Just as important, major early education providers like the Y of the USA and Bright Horizons, have made major changes on their own, promoting physical activity, eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages, and reducing TV time for children in their care.

Healthier food, more physical activity, reduced screen time. That’s almost certainly the formula that led to the positive results reported today. But just because it’s simple to describe, doesn’t mean it’s easy to do, as the states and communities that have not yet seen a decrease can attest.

To spread the change, parents and students are pushing schools to improve the quality of their meals and snacks, and cities and states to invest in parks, walking paths, and bike lanes. And although we’ve seen increased consumer demand for healthier foods and beverages, many companies are resisting the trend, preferring instead to market unhealthy foods and drinks, even to their youngest customers.

It’s now clear that those who didn’t believe that healthy changes can make a difference are wrong. It may not be easy, but it is that simple. And as increasing numbers of communities and states are finding, it’s also not that hard.

As a pediatrician and a public health advocate, I can say with confidence that we know how to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. The only question is whether our leaders have the courage and the political will to do it.  The rest of us are ready.