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Childhood Obesity in the United States Is Decreasing

For the first time in years, the proportion of children who could be classified as obese decreased

New school lunch programs are one of the ways people are trying to fight childhood obesity. (USDAgov)

The research and public outreach campaigns focusing on obesity may actually be working. Michelle Obama has made this her primary cause, New York City tried to ban huge sodas, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called it an epidemic. And now, for the first time in years, the proportion of children who both are enrolled in government nutrition-assistance programs and could be classified as obese decreased.

The results come from a CDC study that looked at 11.6 million preschool children in 43 states. In 2008, 17.9 percent of those children were obese. In 2011 that number had dropped to 16.6 percent. Only three states saw the obesity rate increase. This is in contrast to the same survey that ran from 2003 to 2008, in which 24 states saw an increase in obesity in kids.

New Scientist points out that precisely why obesity is dropping isn’t clear, but researchers have some ideas:

The researchers cannot be certain about what is driving obesity rates downward. However, the US has made several important changes in health and nutrition policy in the past few years. Most notably, the government’s main nutrition-assistance programme for children now provides better access to fruits, vegetables and whole grains instead of high-fat dairy foods, and many childcare providers now give children more physical activity and less passive sitting.

Scientists also warn to not celebrate that 16.6 percent too much—it’s still far too high. “We have to treat these as fragile changes,” Ashleigh May told New Scientist. “We’re still way too high in the proportion that are obese.”

The study also points out that it doesn’t represent all children, just those enrolled in these low-income federal nutrition programs. In fact, in higher income groups obesity in children has already been decreasing. In other words, Michelle Obama and the rest of the obesity fighting world can’t pack up just yet.

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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