CDC Reports Dip In Obesity Rates Among Some PreSchoolers

Fresh analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the tide may be turning on the childhood obesity front. After decades of steady increases, 19 states and U.S. territories saw small decreases in their rates of obesity among low-income preschoolers. And another 20 states held steady at current rates.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Some encouraging health news, now. There is evidence that we have reached a turning point in the childhood obesity epidemic. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found a dip in obesity among low-income preschoolers across 18 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been quick to frame the dip in childhood obesity as a turning point. Before, there were only suggestions - hints, really - that efforts to turn around the epidemic were beginning to take root. Now, there's evidence of small declines in obesity rates among very young children, in many parts of the country.

Here's CDC Director Tom Frieden.

TOM FRIEDEN: We're really encouraged that 19 states show significant decreases. We're beginning to see the scales tip in a more favorable, more healthy direction.

AUBREY: There's still a lot to do here, Frieden says. But he thinks more Americans are getting the message that we need to eat better and exercise more.

FRIEDEN: And that's beginning to sink in, especially at the youngest ages. And that's so important because kids who are obese are five times more likely to be obese as adults.

AUBREY: Frieden points to lots of factors likely contributing to the downward trend in child obesity rates - everything from community-based wellness initiatives to increases in the number of women breast-feeding; and improved access to fresh food, especially for those enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children federal assistance program, known as WIC.

FRIEDEN: There have been dramatic - and very good - changes in policies in the WIC program. So WIC foods are healthier, and stores that carry WIC foods are carrying more healthy foods.

AUBREY: Now, it's important to realize that childhood obesity is still a serious epidemic, says pediatrician Stephen Pont. He chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics' section on obesity. And he says while it's encouraging to see dips in obesity among young children in many states...

DR. STEPHEN PONT: There are still 30-plus states and territories where we haven't seen a reduction in the rates of childhood obesity. And that should inspire us to continue our work because there's so much more to be done.

AUBREY: Pont says where he practices - in the Austin, Texas, area - lots of the low-income families he works with still face big obstacles to making healthy choices. Take, for instance, getting enough physical activity. Pont says it can be tough if you live in a neighborhood with lots of crime.

PONT: Absolutely. If a parent is working, and it's either a single-parent home or both parents are working, families are not inclined to let their children play outdoors because they're scared about their safety. They know that their child is safe if they're indoors, playing video games.

AUBREY: One solution is for schools to encourage more physical activity. And Sam Kass, who directs the firstlady Michelle Obama's Let's Move Campaign, says this is happening.

SAM KASS: We are seeing tremendous leadership - from states to school districts and individual schools - of trying to find innovative ways to get our kids moving either before, during or after school.

AUBREY: Kass says there's still a long way to go here. But he also says it's also important not to lose sight of the progress being made. He sees the new data pointing to reductions in childhood obesity as a watershed moment.

KASS: We're seeing broad change; and a shift where basically, you have the entire country either coming down or flatlined.

AUBREY: And after decades of increases, Kass says this shift in the right direction suggests that as a country, we're on the right track.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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