Childhood obesity decreases: Yay! or Yawn.

CDC: changes in childhood obesity prevalence 2008-2011

CDC: changes in childhood obesity prevalence 2008-2011

The recent frenzy about trends in childhood obesity is a sign of how desperate we are for any hint of good news about obesity.  If you get your nutrition news from headlines, you might mistakenly conclude that obesity is over.  You can disabuse yourself of that belief by going out in a public place and looking around.

The data that generated the headlines is actually extremely specific and narrow:

  • low income children
  • ages 2 to 4 years
  • data available from 40 states, not all 50
  • even with this slight average decline, 1/8th of children are obese, and even more are overweight

One of the biggest percentage drops in child obesity was the U.S. Virgin Islands, which saw a decrease from 13.6% to 11%.  This one large percentage change skews the averages in the rest of the data.  Some states actually saw an increase and some saw no change at all.

Should we be celebrating?  Children who aren’t in low income food programs were not assessed.  Data for children in 10 states wasn’t included.  Children older than 4 years were not included.

If anything, this trend indicates two potentially important changes in adult behavior:

  1. Doctors are more willing to talk to parents about their child’s weight.  Pediatricians have access to better assessment tools, and some medical facilities have policies for monitoring a child’s weight.
  2. Parents are more willing to listen to doctors about obesity.  Few parents want their children to grow up dealing with this issue.  Parents of toddlers can easily control what their child eats.  They can choose not to buy certain food items, and they can control portions.  They can also structure the child’s life to encourage more physical activity.

But what happens with that toddler is 10 years old, or 15?  Or 25?  As children grow, it becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for even the most well-meaning parent to control their food choices.  As children grow and become more independent and more influenced by their friends, will they just gain weight and become obese adults?  Unfortunately, our environment is built to discourage physical activity, and portion sizes are distorted throughout our food supply, from bags of chips to pints of ice cream to super sized soft drinks and super sized restaurant meals.  Even the plates and bowls used at home encourage big portions.

All parents need to be vigilant as long as a child is living at home.  Model good food behavior and an active lifestyle.  It’s easy to control a 3 year old’s food choices, but if that 3 year old sees Mom and Dad eating giant portions and big desserts, while avoiding vegetables and guzzling super sized soft drinks, that bad message will eventually guide his or her food choices at age 10 or 15.

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