As students crowd back into classrooms and cafeterias, debates continue over healthy lunches and the role of physical education classes. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some good news on the childhood obesity front: 19 of the 43 states or territories studied have reported a decline in obesity rates.
This comes on the heels of a decades-long rise, which leveled off between 2003 and 2008. The recent study collected data between 2008 and 2011, using height and weight measurements from nearly 12 million low-income children.
“We’re seeing great progress,” said Ashleigh May, lead author of the CDC study.
Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey, and South Dakota showed the greatest improvement. Hawaii has the best rate, with only 9 percent of preschoolers considered obese in 2011. At 17 percent, California’s rate is the worst.
Most of the children included in the study were enrolled in the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, and CDC officials credit changes in WIC policies for at least some of the improvement. In 2009, WIC removed juice from infant food packages and began promoting long-term breastfeeding. It also provided greater access to fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Poor diet and lack of exercise account for the high levels of obesity: One-third of U.S. children and teens are obese or overweight. Often the cheapest and most convenient foods are also high in sugar, fat, and calories. And as more children stay inside, going online and playing video games, fewer are going outside for the daily hour of physical activity the CDC recommends.
Currently, 1 in 8 preschoolers is overweight. These children are five times more likely to become overweight adults. Obesity increases the risk of high cholesterol, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, asthma, and even mental health problems, including poor self-esteem and depression. CDC director Thomas Friedan cautions, “The rates are still too high. It’s not like we’re out of the woods.”