Why Is Childhood Obesity Down Among Poor Kids?

PHOTO: Obesity among poor preschoolers has declined, according to a new study.Image Source/Getty Images
Obesity among poor preschoolers has declined, according to a new study.

The obesity rate among young poor children - which for years has remained stubbornly high - shows consistent declines for the first time since it's been recorded.

Impoverished preschoolers' obesity rates dropped in 19 states and territories between 2008 and 2011, according to data released this week by federal health officials. Just three states showed increases. The last time the data was analyzed, in 2009, obesity had risen in 24 states and territories, and declined in just nine.

Obesity in children is no minor issue. Kids who are significantly overweight between ages three and five are far more likely to be overweight as adults, which puts them at higher risk for killers like heart disease and diabetes.

The researchers aren't quite sure what has caused the drop-off, but they're exploring several explanations.

1. More women are breastfeeding. Health officials have long touted the benefits of breastfeeding. Studies indicate that babies who nurse are less likely to be overweight children. And the percentage of women breastfeeding their infants increased from 71 percent in 2000 to 77 percent in 2010. Women are also breastfeeding their babies longer, with about half of all babies still breastfeeding at six months and slightly more than a quarter nursing at a year.

2. Fewer sugary drinks. The number of calories kids take in from sugary drinks has dropped since 1999. So have overall calories, but only by a little bit. One reason is that parents say they are more educated about what to feed their kids and are encouraging children to drink water and milk.

3. Nutrition programs have changed. Changes in federal nutrition programs may have contributed partially to increased education levels among parents, especially low-income parents. The guidelines have been updated to encourage parents to breastfeed and serve things like water and low-fat milk instead of juice. School lunches have also improved in recent years, with more emphasis on fruits, veggies and whole grains, and cutbacks on sodium levels and calories. That's especially beneficial for kids in free and reduced lunch programs who eat school meals on a regular basis.

4. Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. The first lady had pushed kids to eat healthy and exercise more, and thousands of child care centers have adopted the message. She's held nationwide healthy cooking contests for kids and agencies like the Department of Education have incorporated her message into their programs. And the date of her tenure in the White House corresponds roughly with the scope of the federal study.