(USA TODAY) - With so little good news about obesity in the USA, public health advocates are celebrating a rare victory: a sharp decline in obesity rates among young children.
The problem of childhood obesity has gotten a national platform in recent years, through first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign. Obama has even appeared with Elmo and Big Bird on Sesame Street to talk about nutrition and exercise.
Today, with the release of new obesity numbers, Obama suggests that her preschool audience has taken her advice to heart.
While obesity rates for most Americans haven't changed significantly over the past decade, among kids ages 2 to 5 the obesity rate dropped from 14% in 2003-2004 to just over 8% in 2011-2012, according to a report out Tuesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That represents a drop of 43%, CDC said.
"I am thrilled at the progress we've made over the last few years in obesity rates among our youngest Americans," Obama said in a statement. "Healthier habits are beginning to become the new norm."
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Also on Tuesday, Obama announced new rules to ban the marketing of unhealthy foods in schools during the school day. "Our classrooms should be healthier places where kids aren't bombarded with ads for junk food," Obama said in a statement.
Some obesity researchers say the new report offers little reason to celebrate.
According to the CDC report, older children made no progress, with nearly 18% of kids ages 6 to 11 remaining obese, as well as 20.5% of kids ages 12 to 19. In women over age 60, obesity rates climbed from 31% to 35.4% in the same period, the study shows.
Obesity "remains at historic highs," says David Ludwig of Boston Children's Hospital, who has warned that today's kids could be the first generation in history to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents. He described the declining obesity rates among youngsters only as an "encouraging preliminary finding."
Thomas Robinson, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, notes that obesity rates among kids ages 2 to 5 have gone up and down significantly over the past decade. Although the survey included 9,120 people, only 871 were ages 2 to 5 years old. And of those children, only about 70 were obese. So in any given year, a relatively small number of children can have a big impact on obesity rates.
Still, Robinson says he's happy just to see the nation's obesity rate leveling off. And he notes that, if the country were to truly make progress against obesity, it would not be surprising to see those victories in the youngest kids, who have spent the least amount of time exposed to the bad habits behind the country's weight problem.
CDC research has found two dietary changes that could help explain any progress: Americans are consuming fewer sugary drinks and more women are breastfeeding.
"We continue to see signs that, for some children in this country, the scales are tipping," said CDC director Tom Frieden in a statement. "This confirms that at least for kids, we can turn the tide and begin to reverse the obesity epidemic."