Late last year, reports came out showing that rates of childhood obesity appeared to be decreasing, or at least leveling off, in a number of major U.S. cities. This week a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had more encouraging news, this time for the country’s two biggest cities, New York City and Los Angeles. These two metropolitan areas also serve the largest number of recipients of the WIC program; the CDC statistics looked at how common obesity was among low-income preschool kids from 2003 to 2011.
The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found particularly good news among kids ages three and four living in the Big Apple: The number of obese youngsters in New York dropped from 18.9 percent and 19.9 percent for three and four year olds, respectively, in 2003 to 14.5 percent and 16.9 percent, respectively. The study found reductions for all ethnicities and races with the exception of Asians, for whom the obesity rate increased.
It’s worth noting that Hispanic kids had the highest obesity rates for all the years of the study, in both New York and Los Angeles—19 percent of preschoolers in New York and nearly 22 percent in L.A. By comparison, in New York, roughly 15 percent of young black kids are obese, and about 9 percent of young white children are obese, as of 2011.
The new statistics were also, ultimately, encouraging for kids in Los Angeles: While the obesity rate among three and four year olds increased throughout most of the years the study tracked (climbing to as high as 22.4 percent of L.A. four year olds in 2009), by 2011 it had dropped to 20.5 percent of three year olds and 20.3 percnet of four year olds.
Though rates of childhood obesity in L.A. were once lower than those in New York, by 2005 they had climbed and surpassed New York, continuing to increase until 2009, when the number of obese Angeleno kids started to drop. New York may have seen a decline sooner in part because the city had already put programs in place to lower child obesity rates (they started in 2001; California’s first state-wide nutrition education program, which included Los Angeles County, didn't begin until 2009).
Obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95 percentile for growth charts put out by the CDC.
Not surprisingly, where kids live has a lot to do with their weight too. L.A.’s car-focused culture may give kids less opportunity to walk (something New York kids are used to doing), and unsafe conditions and a relative lack of sidewalks, parks, and rec centers may also make it harder for kids to be physically active. Plenty of fast-food restaurant choices and more "food deserts"—where it's hard to find stores selling healthful food at reasonable prices—don't help, either.
What do you think about the news that childhood obesity rates are dropping: Do you find it encouraging? Or do you think we may become complacent about this epidemic?
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Lorie A. Parch is a Los Angeles-based writer specializing in health and lifestyle topics.