New hope in obesity battle as rate drops among U.S. toddlers

MONROE — It’s Saturday morning at Monroe’s YMCA. Three- and 4-year-olds are participating in a ballet and teddy-bear tumbling class, one of the most popular.

“It’s all about having fun,” said Tonya Price, health and well-being director at the Y here. “If it wasn’t fun, they would cry and complain, right in front of the instructor. They have no filter.”

Kids this age are the biggest group her branch serves, Price said. Ballet and tumbling is just one of the classes offered in the hope that healthy activity and eating during the earliest years of childhood will stick.

Whether such habits have contributed to a big drop in obesity among 2- to 5-year-olds nationwide is uncertain. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that obesity in this young age group declined from 13.9 percent to 8.4 percent between 2003 and 2012.

Even with that significant a drop, it’s not time to raise the victory flag in the battle against childhood obesity, said Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician who works at Seattle Children’s Hospital and The Everett Clinic.

Although the finding is encouraging, no one knows what may have caused the decline or if it will continue, she said. “Maybe this is a little stream of light through the window,” Swanson said. “Hopefully, it’s the beginning of a trend, but it’s not necessarily confirmed yet.”

Studies show that it takes ongoing effort to keep kids at healthful weights, she said. “When we offer an hour of activity every day, that’s when we make change.”

Dr. Deb Nalty, a family practice doctor for Providence Physician Group in Monroe, said that in both young kids and adults, weight loss depends a lot on consuming fewer calories.

“Weight loss is really due to calorie restriction,” she said.

Although much of the media attention on the national study focused on the reduction of obesity in young kids, overall the study showed there hasn’t been much progress among other age groups, including older children and adults, said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

The study found that nearly 17 percent of youths and nearly 35 percent of adults are obese.

“This is a mixed set of messages to some degree,” he said. Over the past decade, obesity has increased for anyone over the age of 11, he said.

Even with kids among 2- to 5-year-olds, Goldbaum said, it’s too early to suggest that the nation has preschoolers well on their way to a normal weight, he said. Nearly 1 in 10 preschoolers are obese, Goldbaum said.

Obesity in adults continues to worsen, he said. The study shows that’s particularly true among women 60 and older, whose obesity rate increased from 31.5 percent to 38.1 percent between 2003 to 2012.

Problems with being overweight are particularly common among black women. Seventeen percent of the women in that group are considered obese, compared to 7.4 percent for white women, Goldbaum said.

Recommendations by local experts are expected within the next two months on what can be done in Snohomish County to discourage obesity and improve people’s health, Goldbaum said. “There are a lot of folks in the community who are interested and concerned and committed to taking action,” he said.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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