For children, obesity landscape is changing

Oumou Balde, 4, left, plays with her teacher, Jacqualine Sanchez, as they play with pretend food in a pre-kindergarten class at the Sheltering Arms Learning Center in New York. (The Associated Press)

Published: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 2:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 2:49 p.m.

Is the anti-obesity message finally getting through?

A marked drop in the obesity rate among preschoolers in the U.S. has researchers and parents pointing to a variety of possible factors.

Among them: public-awareness campaigns to get parents to serve healthier food to their children; a drop in soda consumption; healthier menus at fast-food chains; more access to fruits and vegetables in some neighborhoods; changes in government food aid; and longer breast-feeding, which is often associated with improved weight control.

"We're not done yet, but this does show that parents really need to be the commanders of their own ship and manage the food environment for their kids at home," said Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian and associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

The glimmer of hope was contained in a government report issued recently that showed that the obesity rate among children 2 to 5 years old dropped by nearly half over a decade, from 14 percent to 8 percent.

Overall, though, both adult and childhood obesity rates have been flat in the past decade, and dietitians, weight experts and doctors warned that the problem is not going away.

For example, while first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign and other efforts over the past 10 years have raised awareness, stumbling blocks remain for the poor and for working parents.

Here's a look at the changing health-related landscape that may have contributed to the drop in preschool obesity:

* Parents setting the example: Sherlyn Pang Luedtke, a parenting coach, said parents can improve their children's eating habits, even if their own were less than stellar.

"I was raised eating fried eggs and rice almost every day for breakfast," said Luedtke, who grew up near downtown Los Angeles.

She and her husband have a 9-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, and the family sticks mostly to vegetarian fare.

"We have smoothies with greens, flaxseed and blueberries with breakfast. We eat whole-grain products," she said. "We feel great about our health choices that we model for our kids."

* Sugary drinks: Consumption of carbonated soft drinks has been in decline in the U.S. since 2005, said John Sicher, editor and publisher of the news and data service Beverage Digest. It has decreased from 10.2 billion cases a year to 9.2 billion.

In 2004, the average American drank 52.4 gallons of carbonated soft drinks a year. In 2012, that was down to 43.8 gallons. Consumption of bottled water has grown consistently over that period.

Between 1999 and 2010, daily calories from soda consumed by 2- to 5-year-olds decreased on average from 106 to 69, according to the government.

* Fast food: McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts and other chains have changed their menus in recent years. They haven't stopped serving Big Macs and french fries, but they are offering more foods to appeal to health-conscious diners, such as apple slices in Happy Meals, egg whites for breakfast sandwiches and whole-grain bread.

Government benefits: Changes in the federal Women, Infants and Children program, which provides food vouchers for the poor, may also be encouraging healthier eating. The changes — instituted in 2009 — eliminated juice from infant food packages, provided less saturated fat and made it easier to buy fruits and vegetables.

* Breast-feeding: Women are breast-feeding their babies longer, according to government figures. And some researchers believe breast-feeding helps children regulate their intake of food, thereby lowering their risk of obesity later on.

Of infants born in 2010, 49 percent were breast-feeding at 6 months, up from 35 percent in 2000. The breast-feeding rate at 12 months increased from 16 percent to 27 percent during that time period.

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