Victory Garden

Declaring Victory over Childhood Obesity?

A string of triumphant stories of declining childhood obesity rates has marked the last month. Is declaring victory premature?

David Allison, Distinguished Professor at UAB and one of the best thinkers in the obesity field, tells us that while this is certainly promising news, “Its exact meaning is difficult to know at this time. It could be that this is a temporary minor decline in rates and that BMI’s will stabilize or go up again (as occurred historically in some European data)…or not.”

He goes on to say, “I am less confident that the data showing rates are dropping more in some cities than others are meaningful. These sample differences may be chance differences, differences due to varying data collection methods by city, or differences in the validity of reporting by city. Finally, I know of no convincing evidence supporting any claims which attribute any declines to any particular cause.”

Regardless, the encouraging stories continue, along with understandably happy quotes from public health officials.

The latest issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report leads with the news that obesity rates for young poor children in New York City dropped from 19 to 16 percent over a nine-year period, while rates in Los Angeles rose to 21% before dropping to 20% over the same period. An editorial note offered the usual caution about how “more research is needed” to assess childhood obesity prevention, but the clear take-away message was something like we’re finally winning.

New York City’s health commissioner welcomed the news and declared “a big success.”

And after years of increases, we now hear childhood obesity rates in West Virginia may have turned the corner. The rate of obesity in fifth graders fell from 28.9% in 2009-2010 to 27.8% in 2010-2011. The decrease is small but encouraging, especially in a state that has seen some of the highest childhood obesity rates in the country.

“This is cause to hope and reason to keep trying,” said Dr. Bill Neal of the CARDIAC program out of West Virginia University that does the screening. “If these numbers are still down next year, we’ll know it’s a genuine trend. So this is no time to ease off in our efforts.”

Stepping back from all the happy talk, a few things are clear. The numbers are looking better. We don’t really know what’s driving this change, any more than we know exactly what drove the bad news. And the problem remains daunting. According to the CDC:

• Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.
• Obesity in children 6–11 rose 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008.
• Obesity in adolescents rose from 5% to 18% over the same period.
• In 2008, more than one third of children and adolescents had excess weight or obesity.

Click here to read about the MMWR report in the Washington Post and here to read the report itself. Click here to read about West Virginia’s trends the Cumberland Time-News and here to read it in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. Finally, click here to access CDC facts on childhood obesity.

Victory Garden poster by Morley / Wikimedia