Northeast Mississippi children’s health advocates are encouraged by signs that obesity is declining in toddlers and preschoolers.
In a report published online Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that obesity among children ages 2 to 5 dropped – to 8 percent, from 14 percent a decade ago. The data came from a large government study considered a gold-standard gauge of trends in the public’s health.
“The numbers from Mississippi have been going down the last couple of years,” said Tupelo pediatrician Dr. Ed Ivancic. “There’s certainly more concern (from parents) about not wanting their child to be obese.”
It’s not enough to say the nation has clearly turned the corner, but the study’s authors are encouraged. The only decline was seen in preschoolers, not in older children or adults. Some experts note that even the improvement in toddlers wasn’t a steady decline, and say it’s hard to know yet whether preschooler weight figures are permanently curving down or merely jumping around.
“Like the researchers, I am cautiously optimistic about the future,” said Kathy Tucker, the seamstress of strategy for HealthWorks! children’s health education center in Tupelo. “I hope that this trend indicates that the health messages being delivered in recent years – by HealthWorks! and others nationwide – are being heard and implemented by parents and caregivers. If we can focus on providing nutrition-rich foods and balancing energy in with energy out we can make a difference.”
Ivancic said he’s not surprised that preschoolers are leading the way. It’s easier – and better – to prevent a child from becoming obese than trying to get them to lose the weight once it’s gained, Ivancic said.
“We’re going the right direction,” Ivancic said. “We need to keep going.”
Health officials have long been hoping for more substantial evidence that they’ve turned a corner in the fight against childhood obesity.
“There’s a glimmer of hope,” said Cynthia Ogden, one of the study’s authors and epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Obesity is seen as one of the nation’s leading public health problems – health officials call it a longstanding epidemic. A third of U.S. children and teens and more than two-thirds of adults are obese or overweight. Officials are particularly worried about the problem in young children. Preschoolers who are overweight or obese are five times more likely than other children to be heavy as adults, which means greater risks of high cholesterol, high blood sugar, asthma and even mental health problems. After decades on the rise, childhood obesity rates recently have been flat. But a few places – including New York City as well as Mississippi – reported improvements in the last couple of years.
More broadly, health officials last year reported at least slight drops in obesity for low-income preschoolers in 18 states. But they mainly were children enrolled in the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides food vouchers and other services. Experts attributed the improvement to WIC policy changes in 2009 that eliminated juice from infant food packages, provided less saturated fat, and made it easier to buy fruits and vegetables.
The new study is a national survey of about 9,100 people – including nearly 600 infants and toddlers – in 2011-2012, in which participants were not only interviewed, but also weighed and measured. The results were compared to four similar surveys that stretched back to 2003. No state level data is available from the survey.
The main finding was that, overall, both adult and childhood obesity rates have held flat in the past decade. And there were no significant changes in most age groups.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.