“Really for the first time in a generation we’re seeing it go in the right direction in 2- to4-year-olds, and we’re seeing that happen across the country,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued the report Tuesday. Only three states – Colorado, Tennessee and Pennsylvania – saw an increase among the 43 states and territories that reported data. Georgia’s obesity rate among low-income preschoolers dropped from 14.8 percent in 2008 to 13.2 percent in 2011, the Vital Signs report found.
“They’re small but they’re statistically significant,” Frieden said of the declines.
Still, the rates remain high, at 14.4 percent nationally, and more than one in eight children ages 2 years to 5 years old is obese, he said.
“Unfortunately, too many preschoolers are still obese,” Frieden said. The rates are even higher for black children – one in five is obese – and for Hispanic children, where one in six is obese, he said.
South Carolina was among 10 states and territories not included in the report because it had inconsistently reported data over the time period or had changed its data-gathering methods, said the report’s lead author Ashleigh L. May.
In 1990, the rate of obesity among low-income children was around 10 percent and rose steadily until peaking in 2007 at nearly 15 percent nationally before a decline began in many states in 2009, Frieden said.
He credited a number of broad trends for that improvement, including First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, increases in breast-feeding and changes in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC. Let’s Move Child Care now counts 10,000 centers nationwide that have voluntarily agreed to adopt more healthy policies, such as serving fruit and vegetables, encouraging physical activity and limiting or eliminating screen time for very young children.
“Today we know that our collective efforts as a nation are really working,” said Sam Kass, the executive director of Let’s Move!. “We know just how vital it is to get children off to a healthy start in life.”
WIC has helped by encouraging less juice consumption in favor of fruit and vegetables and low-fat milk, Frieden said. Rates of breast-feeding are increasing and, while its impact on childhood weight remains controversial, Frieden believes it can help.
“It’s certainly a great way to start and it is encouraging that we are seeing that increase,” he said.
Addressing obesity in early childhood is important because obese preschoolers are five times more likely to be overweight or obese as adults. The medical cost of obesity in adults was $150 billion in 2008, Frieden said.
“We hope that these small successes signal a potential for really turning the tide in early childhood obesity and galvanizing efforts to address the obesity epidemic not only in early childhood but across the lifespan,” he said.