Young U.S. children from poor families are seeing an unprecedented drop in their levels of obesity, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The findings represent the first time ever that the government has witnessed a widespread reduction in low-income children’s obesity rates and may bode well for America’s public health at large.
The obesity rate for poor children aged two to four fell in 18 states and the Virgin Islands between 2008 and 2011. Only three states witnessed a rise in obesity, while 19 others — as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico — experienced no significant changes. That’s a far cry from a similar analysis conducted in 2009, when 24 states saw higher childhood obesity rates among low-income families and only nine states or territories underwent a decline.
Although the reductions themselves are modest — averaging around one percent — scientists consider them widespread enough to be significant. “[W]e’ve seen isolated reports in the past that have had encouraging trends, but this is the first report to show many states with declining rates of obesity in our youngest children after literally decades of rising rates,” said CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden during a press conference.
Low-income and minority children suffer from disproportionate levels of obesity. Although one in eight preschoolers nationally are obese, the numbers rise to one in five for African Americans and one in six for Hispanics aged two to five. These Americans often become obese because of combination of genetics and socioeconomic setbacks, including inadequate access to healthy food, poor living conditions, and the physical and mental health stresses of struggling with inequality. Children who become obese at a very young age are five times more likely to remain obese as adults.
Although researchers cannot point to a single reason for the unprecedented decline, several cultural and policy changes are likely to be boosting the trend. A recent CDC report found that while low-income and minority mothers still breastfeed their babies — which doctors widely believe to help prevent obesity and diabetes later in life — in lower numbers than richer white women, there has nonetheless been a significant rise in breastfeeding among all U.S. mothers.
Better nutritional and public health regulations may also be a factor. Mississippi saw its childhood obesity rate plummet by 13 percent between 2006 and 2011 thanks to aggressive school nutrition and physical education programs that were passed in 2007. First Lady Michelle Obama has led a national campaign to fight childhood obesity through better food and exercise — a movement that 10,000 child care centers in America have embraced. Those nutritional policy reforms may become more widespread thanks to Obamacare funding for local preventative health care efforts and regulations taking effect this year that force public schools to trade in junk food in cafeterias and vending machines for healthier alternatives.
Recent reports also indicate that Americans are taking their health more seriously. Over 55 percent of Americans are concerned with eating a healthier diet and 54 percent want to achieve a healthy weight — goals that they may be enforcing on their children.
If the downward trend in low-income childhood obesity holds, it could be great news for U.S. health care costs, the public wellness, and workplace productivity. Obesity-related illnesses comprise between 10 and 15 percent of public and private insurance costs. The condition is also estimated to cost the economy about $73 billion annually through medical costs and worker absenteeism.