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Biggest childhood obesity declines seen in New York City schools

BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
health world

December 15, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Obesity rates have dropped in New York elementary and middle schools, perhaps due to comprehensive interventions.
Obesity rates have dropped in New York elementary and middle schools, perhaps… (John Moore / Getty Images )

Some encouraging news on the childhood obesity front: Obesity levels among kindergartners through eighth-graders in New York City have gone down, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

The decline, says the report, is to date the largest drop on record in a large U.S. city in this population, and it may be due to a comprehensive intervention that included the tried-and-true recipe of better food and more physical activity.

The CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released today finds that, from 2006 and 2007 to 2010 and 2011, obesity prevalence in kindergartners through eighth-graders in city public elementary and middle schools declined 5.5%, from 21.9% to 20.7%. Although the reduction was seen across all groups, poverty levels and racial and ethnic groups, when broken down, some groups saw bigger drops than others.

For example, among age groups, children ages 5 to 6 saw the biggest declines (9.9%), and in that group white kids were the biggest losers (23.6%), followed by Asians and Pacific Islanders (13.5%), blacks (7%) and Hispanics (6%).

In that age group, kids in neighborhoods with low poverty saw more of an obesity drop (16.7%) compared with kids in very high-poverty neighborhoods (2.7%).

This isn't the first report noting a decline in childhood obesity rates, which still remain high across the country: A modest reduction was seen in California this year. A study released last month found that rates dropped 1.1% from five years ago statewide and 2.5% in Los Angeles County.

The data from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy reported that rates are still high: 38% of kids in the state and about 42% in L.A. County are overweight or obese.

A 2010 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that school-based programs helped overweight and obese kids slim down in 42 middle schools around the U.S. Some 4,600 students were assigned to a school program emphasizing diet and exercise or took part in no program. The rate of obese and overweight students dropped about the same in both groups after three years, about 4%.

However, those in the intervention programs saw bigger drops in body mass index, insulin levels and waist circumference.

In New York, the declining numbers may be due to the state employment of a number of interventions in public schools, including regulations that upgraded nutrition, nutrition education, more time for physical activity and better cafeteria food.

School nurses also kept an eye on children who were at risk for becoming obese, notifying parents when they thought there was a problem.

The study authors were encouraged by the findings, noting that the bigger declines for younger students point out the importance of early changes at home or school. "Nonetheless," they wrote, "the uneven gains among minorities and those with lower incomes highlight the need for further targeted measures to reduce childhood obesity."

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