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12:43 pm
Tue August 6, 2013

Falling Obesity Rates Among Preschoolers Mark Healthful Trend

Originally published on Thu August 8, 2013 7:47 am

A fresh analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the tide may be turning on the childhood obesity front.

After decades of steady increases, 19 states and U.S. territories saw small decreases in their rates of obesity among low-income preschoolers. And another 20 states held steady at current rates.

A CDC map shows several Southern states — including Florida, Georgia and Mississippi — that are part of the downward trend.

"We're beginning to see a tipping point," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden says. "We're beginning to see the scales tip in a more favorable, healthy direction."

The changes are small. For instance, in Florida the rate fell from 14.1 percent in 2008 to 13.1 percent in 2011. And dips in other states are similar during this three-year period. The data for the new CDC report comes from the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System.

Still, Frieden says the changes are encouraging, especially for this age group. He says children who are overweight during the preschool years are about five times more likely to end up overweight or obese as adults.

Now, there have been hints of a leveling off of childhood obesity rates for a while.

There have been measurable decreases in cities such as New York City and Philadelphia, where there has been concerted, comprehensive action to address the problem. And the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation points to other promising case studies in cities such as Kearney, Neb., and Vance, N.C.

So, what's responsible for the declining rates across so many states? Frieden points to several federal programs. For instance, changes to the Women, Infants and Children program that provides supplemental foods and education to low-income families.

Also, as we've reported, there's been an increase in the number of moms breast-feeding their infants as the results of support programs in hospitals nationwide. These efforts may lower the risk of obesity.

And municipalities, health providers and employers across the country have introduced all sorts of initiatives to encourage healthier lifestyles. Some doctors are even prescribing fruits and vegetables for their patients.

Many pediatricians say they're much more assertive about obesity-prevention efforts, compared to a decade ago. "It used to be a very awkward, embarrassing conversation to have [with overweight families]," says Dr. Margaret Desler of Kaiser Permanente.

Now, she charts kids' body mass indexes, or BMIs, at every visit and talks with patients and their families about their eating and exercise habits. "It just opens up communication lines," says Desler.

No one is claiming a victory over childhood obesity. "It's still a very serious epidemic," says Dr. Tom Robinson at Stanford University. But he says the CDC report pointing to small declines in childhood obesity is very encouraging.

"Small changes can magnify into large improvements in health" over time, he says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The tide may be turning in the fight against childhood obesity. That's according to a new report from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. As NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, the study points to small declines in obesity among low-income preschoolers across 18 states.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: At a time when one in three children in the U.S. is overweight or obese, the suggestion that the epidemic has hit its peak and may be starting to decline, even in a small way, is momentous. Here's CDC director Tom Frieden.

TOM FRIEDEN: This is the first report to show that many states are having decreasing rates of obesity in our youngest children. And we're really encouraged.

AUBREY: There have been hints of a downward trend in childhood obesity for a while now, especially in cities such as New York and Philadelphia, where there have been lots of programs to fight the epidemic head-on. But this new report suggests that the progress is much broader. In states from Georgia to Missouri and New Jersey to South Dakota, obesity rates among young children are down by about one percentage point.

And in 20 more states, Frieden says, there's been a flatlining. Rates are holding steady. This may not sound like much, but after decades of increases, Frieden says this is a big deal.

FRIEDEN: This is some progress. We're beginning to see a tipping point. We're beginning to see the scales tip in a more favorable, more healthy direction.

AUBREY: So what explains this momentum? Well, Frieden points to federal policies. For instance, more access to fresh food for low-income women and children who receive nutrition assistance. And, he says, increases in breastfeeding rates among new moms, which has also been tied to a decreased risk of obesity.

Pediatrician Margaret Desler of Kaiser Permanente, who treats low-income families in Richmond, California, says another factor that may contribute to this downward trend is the change in how pediatricians and patients approach the issue.

She says, 10 years ago, it was hard to talk about weight.

MARGARET DESLER: It was an awkward, embarrassing conversation to have. I think it was painful to be asked about weight.

AUBREY: But that has changed immensely. Whether it's TV shows like "The Biggest Loser" or the megaphone that first lady Michelle Obama has brought to the issue, our culture talks about obesity a lot. Desler says the way Kaiser Pemanente manages obesity prevention has changed, too.

For instance, she now she charts kids' BMIs, or body mass index, at every visit and talks about it with the kids and their families.

DESLER: I will ask questions about nutrition and styles of eating and content of eating and it just opens up communication lines.

AUBREY: And gets families asking the right questions. Pediatrician Tom Robinson of Stanford University says from his point of view, as part of the push towards transparency, it's little things that can help families make healthier choices. For instance, he points to calorie postings on menu boards.

TOM ROBINSON: These small changes can magnify into very large improvements in health.

AUBREY: Now, no one is claiming a victory over childhood obesity. Experts say it's still a very serious epidemic. But certainly there's widespread optimism given the evidence that the tide has begun to turn. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.