Obesity rates drop slightly in state’s preschoolers from lower-income families

Obesity rates among preschoolers from lower-income families declined in Massachusetts and 17 other states from 2008 to 2011, according to a new government report.

While the decreases in most of the states were slight, any decline gives public health officials reason for optimism because obesity has soared must faster over the past two decades among children from from poorer families than those from from more affluent communities.

“Although obesity remains epidemic, the tide has begun to turn for some kids in some states,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released the report. “While the changes are small, for the first time in a generation they are going in the right direction.”

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In Massachusetts, obesity rates among low-income preschoolers fell very modestly-- less than one-half a percentage point from 16.7 percent of preschoolers to 16.4 percent over the three-year period. Florida, New Jersey, and three other states had at least a 1 percent drop in their obesity rates, while 20 states saw no decline in their rates. Three states had an increase.

The report examined height and weight data from 11.6 million low-income children who were 2 to 4 years old and came from 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Researchers at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute last year documented a declining obesity trend among Massachusetts preschoolers from all income levels. They found that the percentage of obese girls under age 6 dropped from 9 percent to slightly more than 6 percent from 2004 to 2008; the percentage of obese boys under age 6 fell from nearly 11 percent to just under 9 percent during the same time period.

The study last year also found that those on Medicaid—which serves lower-income people—had much higher obesity rates and a much smaller decline in these rates, less than 1 percent over the study period.

Other recent data collected by the state have shown giant disparities in childhood obesity prevalence in different Massachusetts communities. For example, higher-income communities such as North Andover and Brookline had obesity rates in the 8 to 10 percent range for school-age children compared with rates of about 25 percent for their respective neighboring lower-income communities of Lawrence and Boston.

The CDC credited states for the decline shown in the new study, citing recently enacted programs that encourage kids to move more and eat more nutritious foods that contain fewer calories. At the same time, the agency wants state and local officials to “step up efforts to drive down rates of childhood obesity” by making healthier foods more affordable and providing better access to more public playgrounds and gyms and to free drinking water in parks and other public areas.