The number of young children who are obese and extremely obese is going down, according to new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In what researchers say is the first national study to show that the prevalence of obesity among young children may have begun to decline, scientists analyzed data from more than 27 million children from low-income families between the ages of 2 and 4 in 30 states and the District of Columbia.
"The results of this study indicate modest recent progress of obesity prevention among young children," according to the study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
It's hard to believe, but more than one in 10 toddlers in this country are obese, according to this report.
In 1998, 13% of 2-, 3- and 4-year-old children were obese and 1.75% were extremely obese, according to the new report. In the following years, those statistics went up. Obesity and extreme obesity rates peaked in 2003, according the data, says Heidi Blanck, Ph.D., one of the study authors and the Chief of the Obesity Prevention and Control Branch in the CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity. In that year, 15.21% of 2- and 4-year-olds were obese and 2.22% were extremely obese.
But in 2010, the obesity rates dropped modestly to just less than 15% (14.94%) and extreme obesity dropped a little too, down to 2.07%.
"We are cautiously optimistic that the number of obese and extremely obese children is going down," says Blanck.
Health experts determine if an adult is obese by calculating the height/weight ratio called the body mass index (BMI). In adults, someone with a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.
Determining if a child is obese is a little more complicated. If a child's BMI puts him at more than the 95th percentile for age and sex, he is considered obese. If a child is at 120% or more of the 95th percentile, she is considered to be extremely obese. Or, as Blanck explains it: A 3-year-old boy who is of average height (37 and 2/3 inches) and weighs 37 pounds would be considered obese. If that same boy weighs 44 pounds or more, he would be considered to be extremely obese.
Blanck and her colleagues are cautiously optimistic about their findings because when children are obese, it's really putting them on a path for poor health. Childhood obesity and extreme obesity are more prevalent among minority and low-income families.
While the prevalence of childhood obesity still remains much too high, Blanks says it's important that the "upward trends have turned around" because previous research has shown that childhood obesity tracks into adolescent obesity. And, depending on which study you look at, 65% to 80% of adolescents who are obese go on to be obese adults. "This really puts them at risk for heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers."
This new report doesn't specifically indicate what has contributed to this slight decline in obesity rates, but Blanck believes an increasing awareness about childhood obesity among parents, health professionals and communities all plays a role. She also believes that an increase in breastfeeding among low-income mother may also have contributed. A 2011 report from the CDC says breastfeeding for nine months reduces a baby's odds of becoming overweight by more than 30%.
Since this new CDC study is focusing on 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds who are obese and extremely obese, Blanck suggests that it's important for parents to be aware of what their child consumes in childcare. According to the CDC, 60% of U.S. preschool aged-children spend at least 30 hours per week in child care.
While health officials and schools implemented more mandates for providing healthier food in schools a decade ago, that wasn't the case in childcare settings. But Blanck says during the past five years, she's seen more childcare facilities increase activity opportunities and providing more water, less sugary drinks, all things that can help prevent a child from gaining weight.
Parents can encourage their children to have water as their first drink of choice (as opposed to soda, juice or other sugary drinks). They can also ask for better food and drink choices in childcare settings. Blanck points to part of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, which provides tips and support for child care providers, to (in the words of the First Lady) "change the way a generation of kids thinks about food and nutrition," and therefore help reduce the number of obese children in this country.