Is Childhood Obesity Really on Its Way Down?

Authors of a new CDC report say yes, but others caution that the numbers may not tell the whole story.

Is Childhood Obesity Really on Its Way Down?

(Photo: WIN-Initiative/Neleman/Getty Images)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

The headlines provided an odd sort of symmetry yesterday. In the morning, there was a flood of stories about the new anti-obesity measures announced by First Lady Michelle Obama. Just hours later, news broke that the very problem these new programs were geared to was well on its way to being solved. “Obesity Rate for Children Plummets 43% in a Decade” is how The New York Times reported it. At first glance, the figure is staggering—especially when set against the reality that preschoolers who are overweight or obese are five times as likely as normal-weight children to be overweight or obese as adults.

Childhood obesity cut nearly in half? So much for an epidemic. Or maybe not.

The headline-grabbing figure came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new figures on obesity among children and adults. The data show that obesity prevalence among children ages 2 to 5 decreased from nearly 14 percent in 2003–2004 to just over 8 percent in 2011–2012, an astounding 43 percent drop in less than a decade. The numbers are based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which takes a nationally representative sample of roughly 5,000 people every year. Cynthia Ogden, a researcher for the CDC and author of the study, lauded the findings as “the first time we’ve seen any indication of any significant [obesity] decrease in any group.”

Last year, the CDC reported that obesity among children was down in 19 of the 43 states or territories it studied but had gone up in three. This week’s report, which was published in today's edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, was short on explanations for the decline in obesity, but others have pointed out that more babies are breast-feeding now than a decade ago, while young children are consuming fewer sugar-sweetened beverages and calories overall than in years prior. The first lady even suggested her "Let’s Move!" campaign is partly to credit for the apparent drop.

Good news on the subject of childhood obesity is always welcome, but several observers have cautioned readers of the CDC’s report to look at the whole picture. The numbers led Mother Jones reporter Kevin Drum to ask a perplexing question: How could obesity drop 43 percent for children ages 2 to 5 while remaining steady for children 2 to 19, as the study reported? John Jakicic, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center, told the Alabama Media Group that the only way to know whether the trend is truly a downward one is to track more years of data. Health reporter Alice G. Walton wrote on Forbes.com that rejoicing over the 43 percent figure largely hides the real trend over the last decade: Obesity rates among youths and adults have held steady.

Indeed, in 2011–2012, nearly 17 percent of children ages 2 to 19 and 34.9 percent of adults were obese, according to the CDC study. In 2003–2004 the rates were 17.1 percent among children and 32.2 percent among adults. Obesity rates among women over 60 rose from 31.5 percent to 38 percent over that time period.

So obesity still goes up the older a child gets and is stagnant or rising among adults. What’s more, obesity is still high among low-income children. These facts are supported in a forthcoming paper from Children’s HealthWatch that will be presented at the Pediatric Academic Society conference in Vancouver in May. The researchers, who studied more than 15,000 children from low-income families in five cities between 2009 and 2012, found that while babies under 13 months had an obesity rate of under 8 percent, the number shot up to around 12 percent in children ages 2 to 3. On the positive side, Children’s HealthWatch researchers found that children living in families that receive federal nutrition assistance such as Women, Infants, and Children or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were no more likely to be obese than non–food insecure children.

“WIC has played a major role in educating families about healthy nutrition and feeding practices for young children,” says Dr. Maureen Black of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a principal investigator for Children’s HealthWatch. “The revised WIC food package introduced in October 2009 provides more support to breast-feeding mothers and increased access to fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and reduced-fat milk. WIC also emphasizes responsive feeding, whereby parents (not children) choose the foods that are offered and children decide what to eat relying on their regulatory cues, not pressuring.”

While Black adds that much work in the fight against childhood obesity remains—especially relating to "ever-present sugary beverages and junk food"—she calls this week's report "very exciting."

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