NEW YORK – Is the anti-obesity message finally getting through?
A marked drop in the obesity rate among preschoolers in the United States has researchers and parents pointing to a variety of possible factors.
They include public-awareness campaigns to have parents to serve healthier food to their children; a drop in soft drink consumption; healthier menus at fast-food chains; more access to fruits and vegetables in some neighborhoods; changes in government food aid; and longer breast-feeding, which often is associated with improved weight control.
“We’re not done yet, but this does show that parents really need to be the commanders of their own ship and manage the food environment for their kids at home,” said Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian and associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
The glimmer of hope was contained in a government report that showed that the obesity rate among children 2 to 5 years old dropped by nearly half over a decade, from 14 percent to 8 percent. That is encouraging in part because obese preschoolers are more likely to be obese as they get older.
Overall, though, both adult and childhood obesity rates have been flat in the past decade, and dietitians, weight experts and doctors warned that the problem is not going away.
“This is the problem of our generation. We are starting to make some progress, but there’s really still a lot more to do,” said Scott Kahan, an obesity treatment and prevention specialist and public health researcher at George Washington University.
Here’s a look at the changing health-related landscape that might have contributed to the drop in preschool obesity:
PARENTS SETTING THE EXAMPLE
Sherlyn Pang Luedtke, a parenting coach, and her husband have a 9-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, and the family sticks mostly to vegetarian fare.
“We have smoothies with greens, flaxseed and blueberries with breakfast. We eat whole-grain products,” she said. “We feel great about our health choices that we model for our kids.”
Consumption of carbonated soft drinks has been in decline in the United States since 2005, said John Sicher, editor and publisher of the news and data service Beverage Digest. It has decreased from 10.2 billion cases a year to 9.2 billion.
Between 1999 and 2010, daily calories from soft drinks consumed by 2- to 5-year-olds decreased on average from 106 to 69, according to the government.
McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and other chains have changed their menus in recent years. They haven’t stopped serving Big Macs and french fries, but they are offering more foods to appeal to health-conscious diners, such as apple slices in Happy Meals, egg whites for breakfast sandwiches and whole-grain bread.
Women are breast-feeding their babies longer, according to government figures. Some researchers also believe breast-feeding helps children regulate their intake of food, thereby lowering their risk of obesity later on.
Of infants born in 2010, 49 percent were breast-feeding at 6 months, up from 35 percent in 2000. The breast-feeding rate at 12 months increased from 16 percent to 27 percent during that time period.
AP reporters Candice Choi, Beth Harpaz, Mike Stobbe and Ricardo Reif contributed to this report.