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Obesity Rate for Young Children Dropped in Past Decade, Study Finds

Cross-posted from Schooled in Sports:

News that the obesity rate for U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 5 plunged 43 percent over the past decade was welcome news for advocates for child health.

The finding was based on new data published online Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Based on the CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the prevalence of obesity among children aged 2 to 5 years decreased from 14 percent in 2003-04 to just over 8 percent in 2011-12. In total, 871 youths among that age range were included in the study (432 boys and 439 girls).

"We continue to see signs that, for some children in this country, the scales are tipping, said Dr. Tom Friedman, the director of the CDC, in a statement. "This report comes on the heels of previous CDC data that found a significant decline in obesity prevalence among low-income children aged 2 to 4 years participating in federal nutrition programs."

The tide hasn't turned for all ages, however. The CDC found no significant decline in obesity rate for children between the ages of 2 and 19, or adults between 2003-04 and 2011-12.

Two years ago, 31.8 percent of youths ages 2 to 19 were considered either overweight or obese and 16.9 percent were obese. In terms of sheer numbers, that loosely translates to 12 million obese children and 23 million who could be classified as overweight or obese. (Those figures were publicized last year in a report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

The findings regarding 2- to 5-year-olds should be considered particularly encouraging for two reasons. First, previous research has suggested that overweight and obese youths are far more likely to be overweight or obese as adults compared to normal-weight children. By nipping obesity in the bud at an early age, there's a greater likelihood that children will grow up to maintain a healthy weight throughout their lives.

Additionally, according to a meta-analysis published online earlier this month in the journal Pediatrics, parents are more likely to underestimate the weight of their obese children in that age range. According to one of the studies reviewed in that analysis, "parents of young children believe their children will eventually 'grow out' of the excess weight."

In 2011, the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education presented guidelines on how to create a active and nutritionally healthy environment for young children, aimed at day care providers and preschools. Among its suggestions: encourage mothers to breastfeed and accommodate the use of human milk for children in daycare; sit with children during meal time and encourage socialization; limit fruit juice to children over a year old, and only allow 4 to 6 ounces per day; and devote two or three occasions during the day to outside play.  

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