December 11 2012

Good News: Obesity Rates Decline

Julie Gunlock

I'm happy to see the New York Times do some real reporting on the obesity "epidemic." The headline alone brings a sigh of relief: "Obesity in Young Is Seen as Falling in Several Cities." Reporter Sabrina Tavernise explains that after decades of rising childhood obesity rates, several American cities are reporting their first declines.

The trend has emerged in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, as well as smaller places like Anchorage, Alaska, and Kearney, Neb. The state of Mississippi has also registered a drop, but only among white students.

“It’s been nothing but bad news for 30 years, so the fact that we have any good news is a big story,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, the health commissioner in New York City, which reported a 5.5 percent decline in the number of obese schoolchildren from 2007 to 2011.

The drops are small, just 5 percent here in Philadelphia and 3 percent in Los Angeles. But experts say they are significant because they offer the first indication that the obesity epidemic, one of the nation’s most intractable health problems, may actually be reversing course.

The first dips — noted in a September report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — were so surprising that some researchers did not believe them.

Deanna M. Hoelscher, a researcher at the University of Texas, who in 2010 recorded one of the earliest declines — among mostly poor Hispanic fourth graders in the El Paso area — did a double-take. “We reran the numbers a couple of times,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘Will you please check that again for me?’ ”

Researchers say they are not sure what is behind the declines. They may be an early sign of a national shift that is visible only in cities that routinely measure the height and weight of schoolchildren. The decline in Los Angeles, for instance, was for fifth, seventh and ninth graders — the grades that are measured each year — between 2005 and 2010. Nor is it clear whether the drops have more to do with fewer obese children entering school or currently enrolled children losing weight. But researchers note that declines occurred in cities that have had obesity reduction policies in place for a number of years.

Many will look at this decline as proof that food regulations have worked. But are they really the cause of the obesity reversal? Don't bet your jelly donut.

Let's be clear; governments at all levels have instituted a variety of limits on the way kids eat. Tavernise examines those efforts, mentioning advertising campaigns in major cities, removing snack foods from schools, bans on vending machines, new snack guidelines, and changes to the school lunch program.

Yet the efficacy of those efforts is questionable. For instance, a study conducted this year by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and published in the January issue of Sociology of Education, found weight gain has nothing to do with the candy, soda, chips, and other junk food purchased at school. That study used weight data from 20,000 children and found that while the majority of the children in their study attended schools that sold “junk” food, there was no rise in the percentage of students who were overweight or obese. In fact, despite the increased availability of junk food, the percentage of students who were overweight or obese actually decreased from fifth grade to eighth grade, from 39.1 percent to 35.4 percent.

This story will also likely generate praise for the First Lady and her Let's Move campaign. She does deserve some credit for highlighting the rather revolting ways kids eating these days. But she does not deserve credit for this reduction in obesity. The reason? Her support of food regulations (on restaurants and food manufacturers) won’t do anything to sway consumer choice (it only hurts businesses). And her silence on the real problem -- parent neglect when it comes to feeding their children -- is both baffling and galling. As for her much vaulted efforts to reform the school lunch program, those reforms didn't take effect until this year so these good figures have nothing to do with the “changes” to the school lunch program (although we'll likely see a sharp reduction in children's weight next year due to the fact that kids aren't eating the gross food currently being served).

So, what accounts for the weight loss, particularly among children at high risk for obesity--poor and minority children? As the Times article points out, Philadelphia, which has the biggest share of residents living in poverty of the nation’s 10 largest cities, saw the most pronounced decline among minorities. Obesity among 120,000 public school students measured between 2006 and 2010 declined by 8 percent among black boys and by 7 percent among Hispanic girls, compared with a 0.8 percent decline for white girls and a 6.8 percent decline for white boys.

Tavernise offers some examples of steps that have been taken to reduce obesity that have nothing to do with government regulations:

 ...Deep fat fryers, favored by school administrators who did not want to lose popular items like French fries, were unplugged only after Wayne T. Grasela, the head of food services for the school district, stopped buying oil to fill them.

But the message seems to be getting through, even if acting on it is daunting. Josh Monserrat, an eighth grader at John Welsh Elementary, uses words like “carbs,” and “portion size.” He is part of a student group that promotes healthy eating. He has even dressed as an orange to try to get other children to eat better. Still, he struggles with his own weight. He is 5-foot-3 but weighed nearly 200 pounds at his last doctor’s visit.

...

Here at William H. Ziegler Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia, where most students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the day begins with a nutrition tip over the loudspeaker. Teachers give out colorful erasers and stickers instead of Tootsie Rolls. Fund-raising events feature fruit smoothies instead of chocolate.

Some students had never seen broccoli or cauliflower, so Jill Dogmanits, a sixth-grade teacher, started taste tests to acquaint students with those vegetables and healthy snacks like hummus, fresh pineapple and whole-wheat bagels.

Student-led health initiatives, teachers actually teaching about healthy eating, school officials deciding on their own to stop serving fried food, teachers switching to non-food related treats for good behavior, principles including nutrition tips in the morning announcements?

How could these efforts work? Where's the federal regulations? Where are the soda taxes? Where are those super nifty bans on toys in happy meals? Where are the vending machine bans and calorie postings? How in the world did this happen without good 'ole Uncle Sam to guide these people to healthier choices.

NYT reporter Tavernise nails it when she predicts "some public health experts say that without broader policy actions like a soda tax, which Philadelphia tried but failed to pass in 2010 and 2011, deeper change will be difficult."

That's true. Many, many careers have been made off of the obesity "epidemic." What will the food nannies do when the data shows further decline (like the new data from Philadelphia that shows more than 20,000 children in first through sixth grades have shown a further 2.5 percent obesity decline from 2011 to 2012). Don't expect this good news to go viral. There's a lot invested in keeping the alarms ringing.

Despite this good news, Americans should brace for more calls for government regulations to help reduce the obesity non-problem.

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