If you’re a parent who celebrates Christmas, right about now your kids may be dealing with a gnarly sugar hangover from all the cookies, gingerbread, pie, candy canes, and chocolate Santas they gorged themselves with all day yesterday (basically the same crap you devoured, minus the mulled wine and spiked eggnog).
It’s hard to tell a kid no to junk food at Christmas, but signs are emerging we may be doing better at that overall. An encouraging new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that obesity rates among American children—particularly children from low-income families—have declined in recent years, marking a subtle reversal of a trend that’s been plaguing the country for more than a generation.
According to the CDC, obesity among America’s youth has almost tripled since 1980, accounting for 12.5 million kids and adolescents aged 2 to 19 (roughly 17 percent of that age group). Among low-income kids in preschool specifically, nearly one third is overweight and roughly one in seven is obese. Just like adults, obese kids are more likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, to say nothing of the psychological damage suffered at the hands of their often-less-than-circumspect peers. They are also more likely to stay obese into adulthood, when cardiovascular disease really starts kicking in.
For the study, researchers analyzed data collected since 1998 for the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System, which comprises some 26.7 million kids, ages 2 through 4—nearly half of all kids eligible for federally-funded programs dedicated to nutrition and maternal and child health. Rates of obesity and extreme obesity rose steadily for several years, but began to reverse significantly according to a regression analysis starting around 2003. (Data jumps up and down after 2003—actually peaking in 2004 for obesity, but the overall trend is downward after controlling for factors like age sex and ethnicity.)
From 1998 to 2003, obesity among poorer, pre-school-aged kids rose from 13.05 percent to 15.21 in 2003; extreme obesity increased from 1.75 percent to 2.22. But between 2003 and 2010, those rates declined slightly. Obesity fell from 15.21 percent to 14.94, and extreme obesity dropped from 2.22 percent to 2.07.
“To our knowledge, this is the first national study to show that the prevalence of obesity and extreme obesity among young U.S. children may have begun to decline,” the authors note in the report.
These are modest decreases, to be sure. And, in the longer term, obesity was still up in 2010 compared with 1998. But the mere fact that the trend doesn’t show an increase for the first time in years is a pretty big deal, particularly among low-income kids, who are more prone to obesity (though the reasons for that, recently—such as the so-called “food desert” explanation, have been disputed).
Finding causality with such a broad study sample, and for such a subtle shift, is probably impossible for now, and the study itself indicates no reasons for the shift. The data indicate we may be starting to do something right, at least (and it’s still too early to tell what the effects may be of Michelle Obama’s reforms to school lunches).
But there may be other factors at play, too. In an interview with The New York Times, Heidi M. Blanck, acting director of the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity and one of the study’s authors, noted, for example, that breast-feeding has increased nationwide since 2000. Among low-income families, the Times notes, the number of breast-fed infants rose from 28 percent in 1980 to 66 percent by 2011.
She also pointed to a report last week from the Federal Trade Commission, which found that child-targeted food marketing declined by about 20 percent between 2006 and 2009.