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Childhood obesity rates level off in California, L.A. County

But the problem is still dangerously common and a threat to long-term health. In L.A.County, 42% were overweight or obese last year.

November 10, 2011|By Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times
  • California spends more than $21 billion in public and private money on healthcare and other costs because of obesity.
California spends more than $21 billion in public and private money on healthcare… (David Paul Morris / Bloomberg )

California's childhood obesity rates remain dangerously high despite a slight drop in recent years, threatening the long-term health of children throughout the state, according to a study released Wednesday.

Thirty-eight percent of children statewide were obese or overweight last year, a 1.1% decline from five years earlier. The rates in Los Angeles County dropped by 2.5% to about 42% last year.

"Any decline is good," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of Los Angeles County's Department of Public Health. "Despite that, we still have a terrible epidemic … with profound implications for young people."

INTERACTIVE: Obesity rates county-by-county

The modest improvement shows that California may be turning the corner in attacking childhood obesity, a problem that is having a tremendous impact on the state's physical and financial health, according to the report by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

California spends more than $21 billion in public and private money on healthcare and other costs because of obesity, which increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and other diseases, the authors said.

"This study provides a little bit of encouraging news," said Susan Babey, a UCLA researcher and lead author of the study. "But there are a lot of areas in the state that didn't see improvement."

Nationally, obesity rates were four times higher among children 6 to 11 years old, and three times higher among those ages 12 to 19, than they were three decades ago.

The data — based on physical fitness tests of students in fifth, seventh and ninth grades — showed stark differences among counties. More than half of the counties saw their obesity rates climb between 2005 and 2010.

Imperial County had the highest obesity rate at 47% and Marin County had the lowest at 25%. The biggest increase — 16% — occurred in Del Norte County.

Since 2004, California has taken several steps to promote healthy food and exercise, including requiring nutrition labeling on certain restaurant menus and banning soda and junk food from public schools.

Those changes are having an impact, said Marion Standish, director of the community health program at the California Endowment.

"All of these efforts have really taken root and shown that we can change the course of the health of California overall," she said.

Standish said she remains concerned about the areas where rates continue to climb. California Endowment and other organizations throughout the state continue working to raise awareness and make healthier food more available in those areas, she said.

Los Angeles County also has made childhood obesity a priority and recently received a $10-million grant to work on the issue.

Fielding said some of the money is going toward physical education training for teachers and on getting schools and preschools to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables. The county also is working on developing policies to make streets more pedestrian-friendly so children can get more exercise, he said.

"There is no panacea here," Fielding said. "We have to work on both the physical environment and the nutritional environment."

The work in Los Angeles, especially in the schools, has made the county one of the leaders in the state in curbing childhood obesity, said author Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

But Goldstein said there is much more to be done.

"The rates are still astounding," he said. "We have a long way to go before we can declare victory."

anna.gorman@latimes.com

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