A Surprising Dip in Childhood Obesity Rates

Are preventive measures beginning to affect childrens' weights? Or is it too soon to celebrate?

Are the effects of healthier school lunches beginning to show in reduced childhood obesity rates? (Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images)

Dec 11, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

It’s not often we hear good news when the topic turns to childhood obesity. But The New York Times is reporting that several U.S. cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, are starting to see pint-sized declines in rates of obesity among school children, but researchers aren't sure what's behind them.

“The drops are small, just 5 percent here in Philadelphia and 3 percent in Los Angeles. But experts say they are significant because they offer the first indication that the obesity epidemic, one of the nation’s most intractable health problems, may actually be reversing course,” writes Sabrina Tavernise.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Policy Snapshot released in September, signs of progress on the prevention front were widespread, ranging from corner stores offering fresh foods to connecting schools with local farms and ridding cafeterias of sugary drinks.

But don't cut into that celebration cake just yet. Dr. Michael Goran, director of Childhood Obesity Research Center at University of Southern California tells TakePart the news may sound good, but he’s not convinced it’s a bona fide trend.

“As far as I can tell, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation snapshot was not a formal study. The prevalence of childhood obesity might be coming down in some subgroups, but we need to be careful in over-interpreting these numbers,” he says.

The figures are daunting. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12.5 million children between 2-19 years old are officially obese. The rate has tripled since the 1980s—a trend that has long alarmed health officials, and often gets carried into adulthood.

While the Robert Wood Johnson report showed obesity declines of 4.7 percent for Philadelphia and 5.5 percent for New York City, Goran says the 13.3 percent decline in Mississippi was too big to be believed.

What’s not in dispute about the Snapshot is the glaring disparity gap—poor, minority children shoulder the childhood obesity epidemic.

“The biggest problem by far is among low-income minority populations, where we see prevalence rates of 35 to 40 percent,” says Goran. “There’s no epidemic in Malibu or Beverley Hills, where the obesity rate among children is in the single digits at 5 percent There’s a very striking economic gradient.”

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