TUESDAY, April 24 (HealthDay News) -- After two decades of
steadily increasing rates of childhood obesity, at least one state
may finally be turning things around.
The rates of obesity in children under the age of 6 in eastern
Massachusetts declined during the period between 2004 and 2008,
according to a new study.
The researchers also found that the rates of obesity declined
more for children who were insured by non-Medicaid health
"In this analysis, we found a substantial decline in obesity prevalence among young children during 2004 to 2008. However, the smaller decrease in obesity prevalence in Medicaid-insured children suggests that the coming years may see a widening of socioeconomic disparities in childhood obesity," wrote the study's authors.
Nutritionist Nancy Copperman, director of public health
initiatives at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck,
N.Y., commented on the new findings.
"This study shows some promise that we might be turning the tide on childhood obesity. What isn't clear is if this decline is from the things we're doing to prevent obesity [that] are causing the change they see," Copperman said.
Results of the study are to be published in the May issue of
Pediatrics, but were released online April 23.
Between 1980 and 2001, there was a rapid increase in the
prevalence of childhood obesity, according to background
information in the study. However, most recent national studies
have shown that childhood obesity may be leveling off, or in some
cases, even on the decline.
Targeting obesity prevention efforts at the youngest children --
those under 6 years old -- may be the most effective, as children
at that age are still predominantly influenced by their parents and
what their parents eat, and their lifestyle habits are just
developing and may be easier to change, according to the study.
To see what was happening to childhood obesity rates for this
youngest age group, the researchers reviewed data on more than
300,000 children who were seen for well-child visits between 1980
and 2008 at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, a multi-site
pediatric practice in Eastern Massachusetts. The current analysis
includes data on 36,827 youngsters who visited their physicians
between 1999 and 2008.
Over time, the racial make-up of the study sample changed
somewhat. In 1999-2000, nearly 64 percent of the group was
non-Hispanic white. By 2007-2008, that number was about 58 percent.
The number of black children at the start of the study was roughly
18 percent compared with 13.5 percent at the end of the study. The
number of Asian- American children increased during the study from
nearly 6 percent to nearly 13 percent.
During the period between 1999 and 2003, the researchers found
that the rates of obesity remained relatively stable among the
children. However, between 2004 and 2008, the rate of obesity in
boys went from 10.5 percent to about 9 percent. In girls, it went
from 9 percent to about 6 percent, according to the study.
In both boys and girls, the decline in obesity was more
significant for children who were insured by health plans other
than Medicaid, the study reported.
The researchers said they don't know exactly what caused this
drop, but suspect that reduced maternal smoking during pregnancy,
increased rates of breast-feeding, more limited television
advertising of sweet foods to young children, and increased
screening and counseling for childhood obesity may have all played
"I think this study is great news. It's great that the rate is going down overall, but I haven't noticed a decrease in younger children here, where most of the children are on Medicaid," said pediatric nutritionist Lauren Graf at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
"When families are struggling financially, it's hard to focus on healthy foods. Many families don't have a lot of money to buy or cook food, and families don't always get the right messages from the things that are subsidized," Graf said. For example, she said, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food program provides vouchers for free juice, but drinking sweetened beverages such as juice is a major source of excess calories. She said many families don't realize that too much juice can be bad.
Both Copperman and Graf said the age group studied here is
critical, because this is when taste preferences are developing.
"Someone who's never had vegetables probably won't like broccoli if
they try it for the first time at 7 or 8. When we're young is when
taste preferences form, and it's also a time when families have
more control. It's the time to establish good dietary habits, and
to turn the TV off," Copperman said.
Both experts also said that parents need to be an example of
healthy eating behavior for their children.
Get advice on preventing childhood obesity from the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
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