Mehki Lee, 5, plays on the playground at Union Baptist-Harvey Johnson Head Start summer camp in Baltimore, Aug. 5, 2013. The obesity rate among young children from poor families fell in 19 states and U.S. territories in recent years, federal health officials said Tuesday, the first major government report showing a consistent pattern of decline for low-income children.
ATLANTA — For many years, doctors have been wringing their hands as more and more U.S. children grew fat. Now, that may be changing, with the first evidence of a national decline in childhood obesity.
In 18 states, there were at least slight drops in obesity for low-income preschoolers, health officials said Tuesday.
After decades on the rise, childhood obesity rates recently have essentially been flat. A few places — Philadelphia, New York City and Mississippi — reported improvements in the last couple of years. But the report from the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention shows signs of wider-ranging progress.
"Now, for the first time, we're seeing a significant decrease in childhood obesity" nationally, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC director.
But rates are still too high, he added. One in 8 preschoolers is obese in the United States, and it's even more common in black and Hispanic kids.
"It's not like we're out of the woods," he said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Obesity continues to be one of the nation's leading public health problems — health officials call it a longstanding epidemic. A third of U.S. children and teens and more than two-thirds of adults are obese or overweight.
Some hope the report marks a turning point.
"I really do think this is a pivotal moment," said Sam Kass, executive director of a White House initiative to reduce childhood obesity.
Preschoolers who are overweight or obese are five times more likely than other children to be heavy as adults, which means greater risks of high cholesterol, high blood sugar, asthma and even mental health problems.
Tuesday's study used height and weight measurements from nearly 12 million low-income children in 40 states. The data was collected from 2008 through 2011.
Most of the children ages 2 to 4 were enrolled in the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides food vouchers and other services.
It's harder to get national data on preschoolers of more affluent families, so it's not clear if the trend applies to all young children. But experts note that low-income kids tend to be heavier.
"If you're going to look at the problem of obesity early in childhood, the group at highest risk are low-income kids. That's what makes this data so valuable for understanding trends in this major public health problem," said Dr. Matthew Davis, a University of Michigan researcher who tracks health policy and children's health issues.
The biggest declines were in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota. Each saw their obesity numbers fall at least 1 percentage point.
Other states showing improvement: California, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Washington. A substantial decline was also seen in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"These signs of progress tell a clear story: we can reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. It isn't some kind of unstoppable force," said Dr. James S. Marks, in a statement. He's senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropy that supports programs to tackle obesity.
Despite the improvements, the numbers are still disappointing. Hawaii was the best, with about 9 percent of low-income preschoolers estimated to be obese in 2011. Even with some progress, California was worst, at nearly 17 percent.