Obesity Declining Among Preschool-Aged Kids in Poor Families

December 26, 2012

Obesity among 2- to 4-year-olds from poor families has experienced a modest yet crucial dip that researchers say may indicate the obesity epidemic has reached its peak among this group, according to a national study published Tuesday in in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Obesity and extreme obesity in childhood are more prevalent among minority and low-income families. Being overweight poses greater health risks for young children down the road including early onset type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death.

The study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), accounted for the height and weight measurements of 27 million children from across 30 states and D.C., who, from 1998 to 2010, were part of the federal Women, Infants and Children program (WIC), which provides food subsidies and nutrition education for low-income mothers and their infants and children up to age 5.

Researchers observed obesity spiked to 15.2 percent between 1998 and 2003, but by 2010, the rate declined to 14.9 percent. Extreme obesity also lowered to 2.07 percent in 2010 from 2.22 percent in 2003.

Study author Dr. Heidi M. Blanck could only guess at what is driving the positive change. She pointed to breast-feeding and less food marketing to children, reported The New York Times.

Healthy breast-fed infants tend to grow more rapidly than formula-fed babies in their first two to three months of life, and they gain less weight as toddlers. "Breast milk is widely acknowledged as the most complete form of nutrition for infants, with a range of benefits for infants' health, growth, immunity and development," the CDC states. "...Breast-fed children are less likely to contract a number of diseases later in life, including juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and cancer before the age of 15."

Breast-feeding overall has increased since 2000, especially among infants of low-income familes. Although it's cheaper than buying formula, in 1980, only 28 percent of economically disadvantaged families breast-fed, in contrast to the 66 percent in 2011, said Dr. Blanck.

In addition to breast-feeding, less food marketing may be substantially improving obesity levels among preschool-aged children. Food marketing to kids decreased by 20 percent from 2006 to 2009, and the advertising of sugary cereals (those with 13 grams or more sugar per serving) to kids essentially ended between those years, according to a recent Federal Trade Commission report about food marketing.

Dr. Blanck also said First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Child Care initiative is helping child care centers serve healthier food and incorporate physical activity throughout day. Furthermore, the WIC program is offering more financing for fruits and vegetables and less for sugar-loaded fruit juice, she noted. 

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