The obesity rate among U.S. preschoolers has fallen by an astounding 43 percent over the past decade, according to a study published Tuesday.
That’s the good news.
More troubling, however, is the study’s general finding: The overall U.S. obesity rates for both youth and adults barely budged at all.
And those rates remain very worrisome. Almost 35 percent of U.S. adults and 17 percent of children and teens were obese in 2012.
Still, the dramatic drop in obesity among preschoolers may be a positive harbinger of things to come. Other research has shown that children who are obese between the ages of 2 and 5 are four times more likely to be overweight or obese when they become adults.
For the current study, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed weight and height data collected in 2003-2004 and in 2011-2012 for 9,000 people who were participating in the CDC’s ongoing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
An analysis of that data found that the obesity rates for 2- to 5-year-old children fell from 13.9 percent in 2003-2004 to 8.4 percent in 2011-2012.
A child was considered obese if he or she had a body-mass index (BMI) that was at or above the 95th percentile of all other U.S. children the same age and gender.
The obesity rates also dropped slightly among children aged 6 to 11, from 18.8 percent in 2003-2004 to 17.7 percent in 2011-2012. But obesity rates among teens rose during that decade, from 17.4 percent in to 20.5 percent.
There was no significant change in the obesity rates among adults — except among women aged 60 and older. Their rates jumped from 31.5 percent in 2003-2004 to more than 38 percent in 2011-2012.
The study defined adult obesity as having a BMI greater than or equal to 30.
‘The scales are tipping’
Other NHANES data, not used in this study, suggest that most of the decrease in the obesity rates among preschoolers occurred within the past five years, according to the CDC.
“We continue to see signs that, for some children in this country, the scales are tipping,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, in a press statement released with the study. “This report comes on the heels of previous CDC data that found a significant decline in obesity prevalence among low-income children aged 2 to 4 years participating in federal nutrition programs.”
“We’ve also seen signs from communities around the country with obesity prevention programs including Anchorage, Alaska, Philadelphia, New York City and King County, Washington,” he added. “This confirms that at least for kids, we can turn the tide and begin to reverse the obesity epidemic.”
Although the reasons for the decline in obesity among young children are not known, the CDC sites three possible factors: improved nutrition and physical activity standards in child-care facilities, an increase in the number of mothers who are breastfeeding (breastfeeding is associated with leaner children), and a decrease in the consumption of sugary beverages.
Also on Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama announced several new anti-obesity initiatives as part of her four-year-old “Let’s Move” campaign. These include an expansion of school breakfast programs and new guidelines about the marketing of unhealthful food products to children in school.