Children From Low-Income Families Show a Decline in Obesity Rate

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) observed a decline in the obesity rate among preschool-aged children from poor families in 19 states and United States territories between 2008 and 2011. Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey, South Dakota, and the U.S. Virgin Islands had the largest absolute decreases in obesity prevalence, each with a decrease of greater than or equal to 1 percent. Twenty states and Puerto Rico experienced no significant change, and obesity prevalence increased significantly in three states. Data was last analyzed in 2009, when only 9 states and territories had obesity declines and 24 had increases. In the report, the proportions were reversed.  This is the first major government report that has shown a consistent pattern of decline for low-income children after decades of rising rates.

Currently, body mass index (BMI) is a measure used to determine childhood overweight and obesity. BMI is calculated using a child’s weight and height, but does not measure body fat directly.  A child’s weight status is determined using an age- and sex-specific percentile for BMI rather than the BMI categories used for adults because children’s body composition varies as they age and varies between boys and girls.

According to the CDC, one in eight preschoolers in the United States is considered obese. Among low-income children, it is one in seven. Obesity is even more prevalent among the minority population, as the rate is one in five for blacks and one in six for Hispanics. Although several major cities have reported modest drops among school-age children, most of the gains were concentrated among whites and children from middle- and upper-income families, and were not consistent across the country.

The CDC researchers utilized data from PedNSS, a state-based public health surveillance system that monitors the nutritional status of low-income children from birth through age 4 years. Data is collected from participants of programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) or Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment program. The researchers noted that use of PedNSS might not reflect the obesity prevalence and trends among all low-income U.S. preschool aged children, because PedNSS is limited to participants of federal nutrition programs. Additionally, the decreasing rate may not be reflective of preschool-aged children in higher socioeconomic brackets that experienced even greater declines in obesity rates.

The researchers noted that the reductions in obesity prevalence might reflect a combination of contributing factors, such as local and state initiatives that focus on the implementation of nutrition and physical activity standards for early care and education programs and efforts to improve healthier food options and physical activity offerings in communities. Federal policy changes such as the alignment of the WIC package of nutritious foods with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans may have contributed to the improved diets among low-income preschool children and their families. Critics of government intervention counter that biological limits may be in play; in other words, the percentage of the population that is genetically predisposed to be obese has been reached.

During this same time period, however, low-income families may have benefited from national initiatives such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program or recommendations from national organizations such as the Institute of Medicine and American Academy of Pediatrics addressing the obesity problem among America’s youth. While national initiatives promoting anti-obesity measures may not affect obesity from a genetic standpoint, it could be argued that such endeavors do affect eating behaviors and patterns, which would impact the obesity rates.