Dec. 15, 2011 -- New York City's efforts to fight fat among its youngest residents may be having an effect, according to new data from the city's health department.
Over the last half-decade, the percentage of students in kindergarten through eighth grade classified as obese dropped from 21.9 percent to 20.7 percent, Magdalena Berger of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and colleagues reported.
The 5.5 percent relative decline is the largest recent reduction in pediatric obesity documented in a large city, the researchers noted in the Dec. 16 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
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The findings indicate that New York City's recent efforts to improve public health -- including a ban on the use of trans fats in restaurant foods, a requirement to post calorie information on chain restaurants' menus, and various initiatives at child care centers and schools -- may be paying off.
Berger and her colleagues updated the city's data on childhood obesity by looking at body mass index information collected by the Department of Education during physical education classes for students ages 5 to 14. The study included data from the school year starting in 2006 to the school year ending in 2011.
The decline in the rate of obesity occurred across age, socioeconomic, and racial/ethnic groups. The greatest drops were seen among:
Children ages 5 to 6 (from 20.2 percent to 18.2 percent)
Whites (from 17.6 percent to 15.4 percent)
Asian/Pacific Islanders (from 14.5 percent to 13.4 percent)
Children in low poverty areas (from 18.0 percent to 16.6 percent)
Cause-and-effect relationships cannot be inferred from this study, but multiple interventions implemented by New York City to address childhood obesity were possible drivers of the trend.
"These measures included establishment of regulations to require improved nutrition, increased physical activity time, and limited screen time ... in group child care, provision of extensive nutrition education training and physical activity equipment to 80 percent of group child care centers, and provision of on-site nutrition education workers at 300 centers," the authors wrote.
In addition, school nurses were trained to identify children at high risk for obesity and to notify parents when a problem existed, changes were made to improve the nutritional value of school cafeteria food, teachers were trained to give in-class physical activity breaks, and individualized body mass index and fitness reports were sent to parents.
The reduction in the obesity rate is encouraging, according to the researchers, but continuing efforts are needed to maintain progress.
"Improving the food environment both within and outside of school, limiting the marketing of and children's access to calorie-dense and nutrient-poor foods, improving access to and opportunities for physical fitness, and educating students and parents about healthy nutritional and fitness practices are all important public health interventions that need to be expanded and sustained," they wrote.