Is childhood obesity on the decline?

Rates in cities are down for the first time in decades, but there's a worrisome catch

Topics: Health, Poverty, Childhood obesity, Obesity, Food,

Is childhood obesity on the decline? (Credit: Shutterstock/Zurijeta)

After decades of soaring childhood obesity rates, news from a handful of U.S. cities is providing a glimmer of hope. According to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation flagged in the New York Times Tuesday, cities including New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, as well as a number of towns around the nation, are reporting a decline in childhood obesity rates.

The dips are slight: Between 2006 and 2011, the obesity rate among schoolchildren fell by about 5 percent in New York City and Philadelphia. However, health professionals viewed the results optimistically: “It’s been nothing but bad news for 30 years, so the fact that we have any good news is a big story,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, the health commissioner in New York City.

The decline in childhood obesity in some parts of the country coincides with national campaigns in recent years to bring the issue to the fore. According to the Times:

Researchers say they are not sure what is behind the declines. They may be an early sign of a national shift that is visible only in cities that routinely measure the height and weight of schoolchildren. The decline in Los Angeles, for instance, was for fifth, seventh and ninth graders — the grades that are measured each year — between 2005 and 2010. Nor is it clear whether the drops have more to do with fewer obese children entering school or currently enrolled children losing weight. But researchers note that declines occurred in cities that have had obesity reduction policies in place for a number of years.

About 17 percent of U.S. children under 20 are obese (that’s around 12.5 million people), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the rate has tripled since 1980.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report did, however, highlight some perturbing demographic discrepancies in certain parts of the country. In Mississippi, for example, the childhood obesity rates only dropped among white young people. Children in low-income families are disproportionately affected by obesity: “Twenty percent of low-income children are obese, compared with about 12 percent of children from more affluent families, according to the C.D.C. Among girls, race is also an important factor. About 25 percent of black girls are obese, compared with 15 percent of white girls,” the Times reported.

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The report’s authors stressed the importance of making healthy foods available and encouraging physical activities in schools in “underserved communities and populations.” Previous studies have highlighted too that healthy eating is, in some ways, the preserve of the wealthy. “Adopting a nutrient-dense diet in line with both dietary recommendations and current U.S. eating habits may raise food costs for consumers,” noted a study from the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, which highlighted the difficulty of feeding a family healthily on a low budget in the United States.

The Times reported that Philadelphia in particular seemed to be leading the way in combating childhood obesity across demographics:

Philadelphia, which has the biggest share of residents living in poverty of the nation’s 10 largest cities, stands out because its decline was most pronounced among minorities. Obesity among 120,000 public school students measured between 2006 and 2010 declined by 8 percent among black boys and by 7 percent among Hispanic girls, compared with a 0.8 percent decline for white girls and a 6.8 percent decline for white boys.

The city’s schools stopped selling sugary drinks in vending machines in 2004 and stopped using deep fryers in cafeterias by 2009.

 

Natasha Lennard
Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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