'Substantial' decline in obesity rates among pre-schoolers in the US

Obesity rates among pre-schoolers who receive government food aid are in decline, according to data extracted from a US nutrition program. The findings, which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in June 2019, confirm that previous data showing that declining obesity rates were not anomalies.

Pre-schoolers playing in classroomRawpixel | Shutterstock

“Prevalence of childhood obesity is high in the United States, especially among children from lower-income families,” the study begins.

12,403,629 children aged 2 to 4 years old from 50 US states, the District of Columbia, and 5 US territories who were enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 were included in the study.

Results showed that overall prevalence of obesity declined from 15.9 percent in 2010 to 13.9 percent in 2016, and the overall prevalence of overweight and obesity also declined significantly, from 32.5 percent in 2010 to 29.1 percent in 2016.

In 2016, the pool of study participants had “slightly lower proportions of non-Hispanic white and Hispanic children and higher proportions of non-Hispanic black and Asian/Pacific Islander children when compared with the study population in 2010.

Any differences between sex, age, and race and ethnicity were tested and analyzed to confirm any trends within these demographics, but it was found that “significant decreases” in obesity and overweight prevalence were found across all demographics. The greatest decreases in prevalence were seen in boys and Asian/Pacific Islander children.

In 2016, the pool of study participants had “slightly lower proportions of non-Hispanic white and Hispanic children and higher proportions of non-Hispanic black and Asian/Pacific Islander children when compared with the study population in 2010.

The study hypothesizes that “WIC food package revisions and local, state, and national initiatives” may be the reason for the decline in obesity rates, although the exact cause has yet to be officially determined.

The addition of extra fruit, vegetables, and whole grains could be responsible for the decline in worrying obesity rates among children, researchers suggested.

Swapping high fat produce for low fat items

Although obesity rates are still too high among children, Heidi Blanck, who is in charge of obesity prevention at the CDC, said the results “gives us more hope that this is a real change.”

With the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease all increasing with obesity, it is clear why any decrease in obesity rates is being celebrated.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately 15 percent of children across America aged 2 to 5 were obese in 2015 to 2016.

Researchers have also warned that obese and overweight children often grow up to remain overweight in later life. As such, curbing weight gain in children is important to increase their chances of maintaining a healthy weight during adolescence and adulthood.

Williem Dietz, a former CDC obesity expert, called the changes “meaningful and substantial,” and attributed alterations in the WIC, which saw high-fat milk swapped for low-fat milk and smaller amounts of juice included in food assistance packages, to the decrease in obesity rates. He noted that these changes accounted for 9,000 less calories being consumed per month per child.

Further changes will be needed in order to curb the obesity epidemic

To reduce childhood obesity rates even further, broader changes need to be made. Families and childcare facilities should also routinely serve fruit, vegetables and whole grains as part of a child’s regular diet.

Maureen Black, a child development and nutrition specialist at the University of Maryland called for employers to lengthen parental leave and make breastfeeding easier for new mothers, as breastfed children are less likely than non-breastfed children to become obese in later life.

Journal reference:

Pan L, Freedman DS, Park S, Galuska DA, Potter A, Blanck HM. Changes in Obesity Among US Children Aged 2 Through 4 Years Enrolled in WIC During 2010-2016. JAMA. 2019;321(23):2364–2366. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.5051.

Lois Zoppi

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Lois Zoppi

Lois is a freelance copywriter based in the UK. She graduated from the University of Sussex with a BA in Media Practice, having specialized in screenwriting. She maintains a focus on anxiety disorders and depression and aims to explore other areas of mental health including dissociative disorders such as maladaptive daydreaming.

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