(USATODAY.com) - Obesity rates among preschoolers are falling in many states for the first time in decades, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.
Small but significant declines in obesity among low-income preschoolers were found in 18 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands from 2008 to 2011, CDC director Thomas Frieden said at a press telebriefing. "This is the first report to show many states with declining rates of obesity in our youngest children after literally decades of rising rates."
The numbers are published in the CDC's latest Vital Signs report. It includes obesity rates from 40 states, the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories. The CDC excluded 10 states because some had changed how they collected data.
Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey, South Dakota and the U.S. Virgin Islands had the largest absolute decreases in prevalence of obesity, with a drop of at least 1 percentage point, the report says. Obesity rates held steady in 20 states and Puerto Rico. They rose in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
Researchers analyzed weight and height data of about 11.6 million children ages 2 to 4 in federally funded maternal- and child-nutrition programs. The data came from the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System.
"Although obesity remains epidemic, the tide has begun to turn for some kids in some states," Frieden says. "While the changes are small, for the first time in a generation they are going in the right direction."
Previous research has shown that about one in eight preschoolers are obese in the USA, the CDC says. Preschoolers who are overweight or obese are five times more likely than their normal-weight peers to be overweight or obese as adults.
"It's great news, but it's too early to say that I feel confident that we are securely on the path to improvement," said James Marks, senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropy devoted to public health.
The results are surprising, he said, "because of the speed at which the epidemic appears to be turning around." The report shows "the highest-risk children in almost half of the states are getting healthier." Marks, a pediatrician, is the director of the health group of the Princeton, N.J.-based foundation.
Frieden called three trends associated with the declining rates "encouraging."
The first includes changes in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which now aligns more closely with the dietary guidelines for Americans, he says. The second is a steady increase in breast-feeding, even though its impact on childhood weight is controversial. The third includes changes led by programs such as Let's Move!, an initiative developed by first lady Michelle Obama to tackle childhood obesity. Those efforts have increased awareness of healthy eating and active living, he adds.
"We know how essential it is to set our youngest children on a path toward a lifetime of healthy eating and physical activity," Michelle Obama said in a statement. "More than 10,000 child care programs participating in the Let's Move! Child Care initiative are doing vitally important work on this front."