A new study found that obesity among young children dropped by nearly half in the past decade, indicating a possible turning point in the nation’s public health record.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found obesity among children ages 2 to 5 dropped to 8 percent, down from 14 percent in 2003. The only decline was seen in preschoolers, not in older children, according to the study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Some experts note 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.
But it's enough of a decline to be optimistic, according to Cynthia Ogden, one of the study's authors.
"There's a glimmer of hope," said Ogden, an epidemiologist with the CDC.
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 weighed and measured. The results were compared to four similar surveys that stretched back to 2003.
Health officials have long been hoping for initial signs that they've turned a corner in the fight against childhood obesity. 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 and Mississippi — reported improvements in the last couple of years. Seattle joined that list last week, with a report of declining obesity in older school children in low-income school districts.
More broadly, health officials last year reported at least slight drops in obesity rates among 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.
Some health leaders in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta celebrated Tuesday's report. They say it's an early sign of a pay-off from campaigns to increase breastfeeding rates and cut consumption of sodas and other sugary beverages.
First lady Michelle Obama issued a statement Tuesday that her 'Let's Move!' initiative, which promotes youth exercise and good nutrition, is causing healthier habits "to become the new norm." She also issued new rules that will further regulate the promotion of sugary drinks and foods at schools.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press