Signs of Progress on Childhood Obesity

    • March 3, 2014

After decades of alarming increases in rates of childhood obesity, we are beginning to see major progress in reversing the trend among our youngest children. This news is “evidence that the nationwide push to create a true culture of health for all children―regardless of where they live or how much money their families have―is taking hold and having an impact,” according to Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, RWJF President and CEO. Some cities, counties, and states also have reported declines among school age children. Read more below about signs of progress and places leading the movement.

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  • The national obesity rate among 2 to 5 year olds declined from 14 percent in 2003-04 to 8.4 percent in 2011-12

  • From 2008 to 2011, there were widespread decreases in obesity rates among preschool children from low-income families

  • States making strong, far-reaching changes to address childhood obesity report progress in reducing rates

  • Places making strong, far-reaching changes to address childhood obesity report progress in reducing rates

Drop in Obesity Among Nation’s Youngest Kids

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The national obesity rate among 2 to 5 year olds declined from 14 percent in 2003-04 to 8.4 percent in 2011-12

A major study published in JAMA marks another important sign of progress toward reversing our nation’s childhood obesity epidemic.

The obesity prevalence among 2 to 5 year olds has dropped by approximately 40 percent in 8 years—from 14 percent in 2003-04 to 8.4 percent in 2011-12. This is especially encouraging because preventing obesity early in life helps young people maintain a healthy weight into adulthood.

The study, which provides the most current national estimates of childhood obesity and analyzes trends over time among various age groups, shows that the overall rates of obesity and overweight among America’s young people have not changed since 2003-04. In 2011-12, 16.9 percent of children and teens were obese and 31.8 percent were overweight or obese.

The study also confirms that a troubling disparities gap continues to persist. Rates of obesity and overweight remained highest among Black and Hispanic youths. This was true across all age groups, and serves as a reminder of the crucial work that remains. Too many children still lack the opportunity to attain good health.

Obesity Rates Drop Among Young Children in 18 States

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From 2008 to 2011, there was widespread progress in reducing obesity among preschool children from low-income families

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows widespread progress in reducing obesity among preschool children enrolled in federal health and nutrition programs. This is the first time in decades that rates have dropped among young children from low-income families, who typically have higher rates of childhood obesity.

Among the places with declines, the U.S. Virgin Islands had the greatest decrease, from 13.6 percent in 2008 to 11 percent in 2011. Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey, and South Dakota saw rates drop by at least one percentage point during that period. Rates remained stable in 20 states and Puerto Rico and increased in only three states - Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

The authors of the report documenting the declines cite several factors that may have played a role:

  • updates to the food package for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children;
  • new nutrition and physical activity standards for early child-care programs; and
  • increased support for breastfeeding mothers.

Learn more about the report from the CDC.

Four States Lead the Way in Efforts to Reduce Childhood Obesity

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States making strong, far-reaching changes to address childhood obesity report progress in reducing rates

California, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia have documented statewide declines in childhood obesity rates. The time period for progress and the ages of the children showing improvement are different for each state, but all of the reports are based on real measurements of height and weight from a large number of children. The declines range from a 1.1 percent drop among students in grades 5, 7, and 9 in California, to a 13.3 percent decline among K-5 students in Mississippi.

Each state faces unique challenges and has taken its own approach to addressing childhood obesity, but there is a common thread. All four states have made broad, sweeping changes to make healthy foods available in schools and communities and integrate physical activity into people's daily lives. Some of their strategies include:

  • implementing state-level legislation to create healthier schools and child-care centers;
  • incorporating initiatives that support walking and bicycling in transportation plans;
  • requiring chain restaurants to post nutrition information; and
  • creating joint-use agreements that allow community members to use school facilities for physical activity during non-school hours.

From Anchorage to New York City - Local Efforts to Prevent Obesity

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Places making strong, far-reaching changes to address childhood obesity report progress in reducing rates

Childhood obesity rates have declined in Anchorage, Alaska; Eastern Massachusetts; Kearney, Neb.; New York City; Philadelphia; and Vance and Granville Counties, N.C. The time period for progress and age range of the children showing improvement are different for each location, but all of the reports are based on real measurements of height and weight from a large number of children. The declines range from a 3 percent drop among students in grades K, 1, 3, 5, and 7 in Anchorage, to a 21.4 percent decline among children under age 6 in Eastern Massachusetts.

Each city, county, or region faces unique challenges and has taken its own approach to addressing childhood obesity, but there is a common thread. These six places have made broad, sweeping changes to make healthy foods available in schools and communities and integrate physical activity into people's daily lives. Some of their strategies include:

  • implementing local wellness policies to create healthier schools;
  • creating incentives to bring supermarkets to underserved areas;
  • providing architects and urban designers with guidelines for designing buildings, streets, and urban spaces that support physical activity; and
  • developing plans to help people walk and bicycle in their community.

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