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Obesity rates among young children plummet

  • Article by: Sabrina Tavernise
  • New York Times
  • February 25, 2014 - 9:39 PM

Federal health authorities on ­Tuesday reported a stunning 43 percent drop in the obesity rate among 2- to 5-year-old children over the past decade, the first broad decline in an epidemic that often leads to lifelong struggles with weight and higher risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke.

The drop emerged from a major federal health survey that experts say is the gold standard for evidence on what Americans weigh. The trend came as a welcome surprise to researchers. New evidence has shown that obesity takes hold young: Children who are overweight or obese between age 3 and 5 are five times as likely to be overweight or obese as adults.

A smattering of states have reported modest progress in reducing childhood obesity in recent years, and last year federal authorities noted a slight decline in the ­obesity rate among low-income children. But the figures on Tuesday showed a sharp fall in obesity rates among all 2- to 5-year-olds, offering the first clear evidence that America’s youngest ­children have turned a corner in the obesity epidemic. About 8 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds were obese in 2012, down from 14 percent in 2004.

“This is the first time we’ve seen any indication of any significant decrease in any group,” said Cynthia Ogden, a researcher for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the author of the report, which will be published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, on Wednesday. “It was exciting.”

She cautioned that these very young children make up a tiny fraction of the U.S. population and that the ­figures for the broader society had remained flat, and had even increased for women over 60. A third of adults and 17 percent of youth are obese, the federal survey found. Still, the lower obesity rates in the very young bode well for the future, researchers said.

Little consensus on cause

There was little consensus on why the decline is happening, but many theories.

Children now consume fewer calories from sugary beverages than they did in 1999. More women are breast-feeding, which can lead to a healthier range of weight gain for young children. Federal researchers also have chronicled a drop in overall ­calories for children in the past decade, down by 7 percent for boys and 4 percent for girls, but health experts said those declines were too small to make much ­difference.

Barry M. Popkin, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who tracks American food purchases, said families with children have been buying foods that contain fewer calories over the past decade.

Another possible explanation is that some combination of state, local and federal policies aimed at reducing ­obesity is starting to make a difference. Michelle Obama has led a push to change young children’s eating and exercise habits. “I am thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years in ­obesity rates among our youngest Americans,” she said.

New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg also made a major push to combat obesity. The city told restaurants to stop using artificial trans fats in cooking and required chain restaurants to display calorie information.

Behavior can be changed

Many scientists doubt that anti-obesity programs actually work, but proponents say a broad set of policies applied systematically over a period of time can affect behavior.

The obesity rate for preschoolers — 2- to 5-year-olds — has fluctuated over the years, but Ogden said the pattern became clear with a decade’s worth of data. About 1 in 12 children in this age group were obese in 2012. Rates for blacks and Hispanics were much higher.

Researchers welcomed the drop but cautioned that only time will tell if the progress will be sustained.

“This is great news but I’m cautious,” said Ruth Loos, a professor of preventive medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

But 2- to 5-year-olds are perhaps the most significant age group, because it is in those years that obesity — and all the disease risk that comes with it — gets established and is later very difficult to shake, said Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan, a professor of medicine and public health at Emory University in Atlanta.

“The weight of evidence is becoming more marked,” he said. Still, he cautioned that the age group was only a small slice of American society: “One blossom doesn’t make a spring.”

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