Childhood obesity down in some cities

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 5, 2013 

After decades of rising childhood obesity rates, several U.S. cities are reporting their first declines.

"It's been nothing but bad news for 30 years, so the fact that we have any good news is a big story," said Dr. Thomas Farley, the health commissioner in New York City, which reported a 5.5 percent decline in the number of obese schoolchildren from 2007 to 2011.

The trend has emerged in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles, as well as smaller places like Anchorage, Alaska, and Kearney, Neb.

The drops are small, just 5 percent in Philadelphia and 3 percent in Los Angeles. But experts say they are significant because they offer the first indication that the obesity epidemic, one of the nation's most intractable health problems, may actually be reversing course.

Merced County saw a slight decrease in its childhood obesity rates from 2005 to 2010, according to a study released in late 2011.

The percentage of overweight and obese children in Merced County dropped by 1.7 percent over that five-year period, according to the study conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

Increase or decrease?

The study found that 43.7 percent of Merced County children in fifth, seventh and ninth grades were obese or overweight in 2010. In 2005, that figure was 44.5 percent.

However, Merced County public health officials have another set of data that doesn't indicate a decrease. On the contrary, it shows an increase.

"I feel that it's too soon to declare that the war on child obesity has been won," said Kathleen Grassi, director of the Merced County Department of Public Health.

Stephanie Russell, supervising health educator with the county's department of public health, said data based on the height and weight that's taken during a well-child exam show that there's a slight increase in the obesity rates in children in Merced County.

Grassi said depending on the data source there might be a reason for the discrepancy, but Merced officials are confident that there is an upward obesity trend in the county.

Regardless, she said the notion that childhood obesity may be stabilizing is good news. The public health department has many partners in the community who are actively trying to address the issue.

For example, Cindy Valencia, a supervising health educator for county public health, said county supervisors last year dedicated the month of September to obesity awareness. They urged the community to engage in activities that will help reverse the trend.

Taking a closer look at the environment also is important in combating obesity, Valencia said.

Meanwhile, public health officials believe that over time, current efforts will be able to demonstrate that they can tackle the problem of obesity.

"We are working really hard with our community partners to make that happen," Grassi said.

Nationally, about 17 percent of children under 20 are obese, or about 12.5 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which defines childhood obesity as a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex.

That rate, which has tripled since 1980, has leveled off in recent years but has remained at historic highs, and public health experts warn that it could bring long-term health risks.

Some experts note that the current declines, concentrated among higher-income, mostly white populations, still are not benefiting many minority children.

The New York Times contributed to this report.

Staff writer Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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