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Obesity among low-income toddlers declines, including in Minnesota, CDC reports

But federal programs that support efforts to lower obesity among low-income children and their families are under threat.

Obesity among toddlers from low-income families has declined in recent years, according to a report published late last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Specifically, the study found that the prevalence of obesity among young children (aged 2 to 4 years) whose families participate in the federal government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) fell from a high of 15.9 percent in 2010 to 14.5 percent in 2014.

That drop is a significant improvement, but the rate of obesity among low-income toddlers remains far too high. When researchers analyzed another set of national data, which included children from all income levels, the prevalence of obesity among toddlers was found to be 8.9 percent, or about 40 percent lower. (And, yes, even that percentage is disturbingly high.)

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Obesity is known to disproportionately affect children from low-income families, a factor that can contribute to a lifetime of health disparities. Children who are obese are at greater risk than their normal-weight peers of developing high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, asthma, joint problems, heartburn and sleep apnea. They are also more likely to have social and psychological problems, as well as low self-esteem.

All of these physical and psychological problems tend to then follow them into adulthood.

Minnesota’s numbers

Some states are doing better than others at reducing obesity among low-income children. According to the CDC report, the rates of obesity among WIC toddlers decreased in 31 states, increased in four and remained steady in the remaining ones between 2010 and 2014.

Minnesota saw a decrease in its rate, from 12.7 percent in 2010 to 12.3 percent in 2014. That rate is one of the best in the country, and gives the state the 7th best ranking among all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Although, again, having so many young, poor children obese is still highly troubling.

Among Minnesota’s neighboring states, South Dakota had the highest rate in 2014 (17.1 percent), followed by Wisconsin and Iowa (14.7 percent each) and North Dakota (14.4 percent). 

Nationally, Utah had the lowest rate (8.2 percent), and Virginia had the highest (20 percent).

Threatened programs

The WIC program, which serves families with a household income at or below 185 percent of the U.S. poverty level, has been trying to fight childhood obesity by providing families with healthy, affordable food, nutrition education and referrals to quality health care.

The authors of the new CDC report cite those efforts, along with other federal initiatives, such as Let’s Move (a program launched and actively supported by first l ady Michelle Obama), as factors behind the drop in toddler obesity.

The results of this year’s election, however, make the future of such federal programs highly uncertain. Both WIC and the Let’s Move program have come under repeated attacks from congressional Republicans.

FMI:  The CDC report appears in the Nov. 18 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), which is published by the agency. You can explore a data visualization of how Minnesota’s obesity rates have changed among WIC toddlers since 2000 — and how the rates compare with those of other states — on the website of the State of Obesity, a joint project by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America’s Health. The site also offers a series of maps that illustrate how Minnesota and other states are promoting nutrition and physical activity in early childcare settings.