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Obesity rate falls in 19 states for low-income preschoolers

New research shows that rates are starting to fall among low-income preschoolers. What's driving the change?
/ Source: Morning Joe

New research shows that rates are starting to fall among low-income preschoolers. What's driving the change?

Children eat lunch at the federally-funded Head Start school on September 20, 2012 in Woodbourne, New York. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)

How heavy can one country get? Until recently, the sky seemed the limit. If recent trends continued, government researchers warned in 2008, some 86% of U.S. adults would be overweight or obese by 2030, and a third of our kids would be fully obese by the time they turned 20.

But the fever may finally be breaking. A wisp of good news came from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which announced Tuesday that obesity rates have recently declined among low-income children in 19 states and territories.  “While the changes are small,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in announcing the new findings, “for the first time in a generation they are going in the right direction.”

The new study isn’t definitive, but it suggests that conditions are improving even for the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable children.

The CDC researchers reviewed height-and-weight records for 12 million preschoolers who participated in WIC and other nutrition-assistance programs. Their analysis covered 43 states and territories, and it yielded good news for nearly all of them. Obesity rates either fell or held steady in 40 of the 43 jurisdictions after rising steadily in recent decades. Only three states—Colorado, Pennsylvania and Tennessee—saw upward trends from 2008 to 2011, and those increases were all minor.

Nationally, about 13% of preschoolers are overweight or obese, but the risk is still significantly higher among kids who are poor enough to qualify for nutrition assistance. In California, for example, 16.8% of the enrollees were obese in 2011, despite a significant three-year decline (the 2008 figure was 17.3%). New Jersey and Massachusetts still hover at similar levels (16.6% and 16.4% respectively), despite similar reductions in recent years.

Puerto Rico’s low-income kids had the highest obesity rate of any state or territory (17.9% in 2011), but the nearby U.S. Virgin Islands saw the steepest three-year decline (from 13.6% to 11%).

What accounts for all these encouraging trends? The study didn’t identify causes, but health authorities believe that public policy and public awareness have both helped. “Many of the states in which we’re seeing declines have taken action to incorporate healthy eating and active living into children’s lives,” says Janet L. Collins, director of the CDC’s obesity division.

Specifically, the CDC points to growing community efforts to make nutritious food affordable and accessible and ensure that all kids have safe places to play. First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Child Care initiative has probably helped too, with 10,000 child care programs now embracing its prevention strategies.

“I think the main reason [rates are falling] is that people are rallying together as stakeholders in this battle,” Dr. Lindy Christine Fenlason of Vanderbilt University told NBC News Tuesday morning. “We’re talking about teachers and parents and caregivers, those in the media, those in government, and those in the medical profession. Everyone has come around to support people in making changes to have a healthy weight.”

That’s not to say the epidemic is anywhere near over. Obesity still affects 12.5 million children and teens in this country, and the potential consequences are devastating, ranging from arthritis and sleep apnea to heart disease, diabetes, stroke and several cancers. But the latest findings show that progress really is possible.