Obesity rates among low-income preschool children fell in 19 states and territories in 2011, suggesting a decades-long rise in young children's weight may be reversing, U.S. health officials said.
The decline in obesity among 2- to 4-year-olds from poor families ranged from 1.8 percent to 19.1 percent, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The research measured height and weight data from about 12 million children in 40 states, two U.S. territories and the District of Columbia from 2008 to 2011.
The study is the first conducted at the state level to find evidence the obesity trend among American children may be abating. In December, the CDC announced that on a nationwide level the rate of obesity among low-income preschoolers fell 1.8 percent from 2003 to 2010.
"In the largest surveillance system we have to track childhood obesity, it's the first time in a generation we're seeing it go in the right direction," CDC Director Thomas Frieden said on a conference call.
Frieden cited contributing factors in the decline as changes in policy in the Women, Infants and Children program; an increase in breastfeeding; and government initiatives such as first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move." Stores are now more likely to carry fruit and vegetables and lower-fat milk, which all help reduce obesity, he said.
The CDC recommends children cut the amount of juice drinks they consume as well as reduce their time in front of screens. Increasing outdoor activity and whole fruit intake will help prevent excess weight gain.
One in eight children from 2 to 5 years old is obese, according to the report. Overweight and obese preschoolers retain their excess weight into adulthood at a rate five times greater than their contemporaries with normal weights.
"Obesity is associated with many of the leading causes of death in the U.S. such as heart disease," Frieden said.
Minority children are more likely than their white counterparts to be obese. During 2009-2010, 12.1 percent of preschool-aged children were obese. Among black and Hispanic children, the prevalence is 18.9 percent and 16.2 percent, respectively.
The U.S. Virgin Islands saw the greatest absolute decline, with the prevalence of obesity falling to 11 percent in 2011 from 13.6 percent of poor preschoolers in 2008. Only Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Colorado saw an increase in obesity among this demographic group, according to the report.
"We went from a low rate to a high rate to a little less high rate, so we are not out of the woods yet," said Frieden.