Obesity rates plummeted among preschool children in the past decade, from nearly 14 percent to just over 8 percent in 2011-12, according to a new federal government analysis that was hailed by one researcher as a “glimmer of hope.”
But the campaign to combat the nation’s obesity epidemic has had no success with adults and older children: Americans remain just as overweight as ever, with two out of three adults at an unhealthy weight and more than one out of three obese in 2011-12, the latest years for which statistics were available.
The study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined annual government health and nutrition surveys that sampled more than 9,000 Americans of all ages. Despite the gains for toddlers, the study found that overall among children under age 20, 17 percent were at the extreme obese end of the weight spectrum. Nearly one-third of kids remain either overweight or obese—nearly triple the rate of 50 years ago—which pediatricians blame for the sharp rise in type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels in children.
Rates actually increased in one group: Women over age 60 experienced a rise in obesity from just under 32 percent 10 years ago to over 38 percent in 2011-2012.
“Obesity rates haven’t changed for most Americans, but there was a glimmer of hope in preschoolers,” said study leader Cynthia Ogden, an epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.
Other government officials placed a far more optimistic spin on the findings. “This confirms that at least for kids, we can turn the tide and begin to reverse the obesity epidemic,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a statement. The agency’s statistics suggest that children who are overweight as preschoolers are five times more likely to be obese as an adult.
Pinpointing the exact reasons for the decline in obesity among children ages 2 to 5 is a tough task for public health officials. The CDC pointed to a recent drop in sugary beverage consumption among young children, more nutritious meals and snacks provided in daycare centers and preschools, and improvements in toddler physical activity programs as possible explanations. A surge in breastfeeding rates could also be contributing, the agency added, since studies suggest breastfed babies are less likely to become obese later on.
First Lady Michelle Obama released a statement saying she was “thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years in obesity rates among our youngest Americans,” adding that as a result of the administration’s Let’s Move! campaign, “healthier habits are beginning to become the new norm.”
The First Lady and US Department of Agriculture also jointly announced Tuesday that new guidelines would be implemented banning junk food ads in schools. Any snacks or beverages marketed to kids in school would have to meet new government school nutrition standards; these were instituted as part of Congressional legislation that also led to improved school lunches and the removal of soda and candy from vending machines.
Other more limited studies have also documented a drop in obesity rates among the youngest children. In 2012, researchers at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute surveyed a large pediatric provider in Eastern Massachusetts and found that the percentage of obese girls under age 6 dropped from 9 percent to about 6 percent from 2004 to 2008; the percentage of obese boys under age 6 fell from nearly 11 percent to just under 9 percent.
But that study found that fewer inroads were made among children from low income families, and the new CDC study identified the persistence of racial disparities among children of all ages. About 9 percent of Asian children and 14 percent of white children were obese, compared with 20 percent of blacks and 22 percent of Hispanics.
“We need to recognize that obesity remains more common in certain populations of kids,” said Dr. John Lumpkin, senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic organization that has focused on reversing childhood obesity. “Certain communities still have a lack of access to affordable fruits and vegetables and ways to be physically active at schools or in their neighborhoods.”
Efforts to improve programs for such children must continue, he added, “otherwise early signs of progress could reverse.”
Public health officials contend that a leveling off in obesity rates among older children—from the sharp increase seen in the early 1990s—should be read as a sign that anti-obesity initiatives are working in that age group. With fewer kids entering kindergarten overweight, Lumpkin said researchers should be able to measure a decline in obesity rates in elementary school over the next few years if the trend continues.
Other obesity experts, however, pointed out that the country still has a long way to go to reverse a problem decades in the making. “It’s still deplorable that there’s such a high rate of obese toddlers,” said Dr. Caroline Apovian, a director of the nutrition and the weight management center at Boston Medical Center. “Feeding our children bad food with high fructose corn syrup, added sugar, and preservatives, really has to stop.”