Childhood Obesity is Declining, But Don't Break Out the Donuts Yet


After decades of America's children getting fatter and fatter, the latest health report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention presented a bit of good news.

According to the CDC Vital Signs report, 19 out of the 43 states and territories examined from 2008 to 2011 showed "small but significant" declines in obesity among low-income children aged 2-4 years old.

"We've seen isolated reports in the past that have had encouraging trends, but this is the first report to show declining rates of obesity in our youngest children," Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of CDC, said in a press briefing.

The CDC report suggested several factors that could be causing this decline, such as population-wide increases in breastfeeding, local and state initiatives that promote healthy eating standards and physical activity for early education, or changes in the food offered in federal nutrition programs for low-income women and children.

But the fact is, we don't really know. It's difficult to consider this a "turning point" in childhood obesity when researchers aren't sure what's causing the decline. How do we know if it will last?

"It's great news, but it's too early to say that I feel confident that we are securely on the path to improvement," James Marks, senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said to USA Today. According to the CDC, 1 in 8 preschoolers are still obese in the United States — and that number goes up for black and Hispanic children ages 2-5. Clearly, we're not yet out of the woods.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that, although programs exist to help low-income families, many still find it too expensive to stay healthy.

"We can talk all we want about eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, but fresh fruits and vegetables are relatively expensive for the amount of calories that they provide, particularly out of season," Lawrence Cheskin, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Global Center for Childhood Obesity, said to USA Today. "And unfortunately, the cheapest foods are often the ones most likely to provide too many calories and too much fat."

After all, when has there ever been a Dollar Menu for whole grain pasta or kale? When has milk ever been cheaper than soda?

That isn't to say that community programs, restaurants, and schools aren't doing their part to help out. The CDC was quick to praise programs like Let's Move!, a national campaign started by First Lady Michelle Obama that helps children fight obesity by eating healthy and being active. But even with all the calorie labels and marketing and cajoling, it really comes down to what parents decide for their kids.

Plus I don't know anyone that actually reads calorie labels when there is a juicy burger and fries to be had, do you?

A small step forward in reducing obesity doesn't mean the end of the fight. In the end, fast food chains and sugary beverage companies will continue to thrive as long as there is demand. Families will continue to choose unhealthy because it's easy. The bigger question is: How can we make choosing unhealthy hard?