Preschool Obesity Rates Finally Drop in Some States

Preschool children play with educational toys.
The rate of obesity among preschool children has dropped, the CDC says. (Image credit: Preschool children photo via Shutterstock)

For the first time in decades, there has been a widespread decrease in obesity rates among low-income preschoolers, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Between 2008 and 2011, obesity rates among low-income children ages 2 to 4 declined slightly in 18 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the report said.

The declines were not very large — around 1 to 2 percent — but at least the trend is going in the right direction, said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC.

"Although obesity remains [an] epidemic, the tide has begun to turn, for some kids in some states," Frieden said in a statement. [See: 10 Ways to Promote Kids' Healthy Eating Habits].

The largest drop was seen in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where preschool obesity rates declined 2.6 percent. The states with the biggest declines were Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota, the report said.

Twenty states and Puerto Rico had no change in their preschool obesity rates during the study period. Three states — Colorado, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — had increases in obesity rates of less than 1 percent.

Some states, including Texas, Utah and Louisiana, were not included in the study because they did not have consistent data, or they changed their methods for collecting data during the study period, the researchers noted.

Nationally, about one in eight preschoolers is obese in the United States, the CDC said. Young children who are overweight or obese are five times more likely to be overweight or obese as adults, compared with normal-weight children, the CDC says.

The new report analyzed information from about 12 million preschoolers who take part in federally funded mother- and child-nutrition programs.

In 2011, preschool obesity rates ranged from a low of 9.2 percent in Hawaii, to 16.6 in New Jersey and Rhode Island, and 17.9 percent in Puerto Rico.

While the researchers could not determine the reason for the decline seen in some states, it may reflect efforts to increase awareness about the importance of healthy nutrition and physical activity, and reduced screen-time for young children, the CDC said. Increases in breastfeeding, which some studies suggest protects against childhood obesity, may have also played a role.

Late last year, it was reported that a few cities and states had seen declines in obesity rates among school children, including New York City, Philadelphia and parts of California and Mississippi.

Despite this good news, more work needs to be done, the CDC said. To improve childhood obesity rates, state and local health officials can make it easier for families and children to buy healthy food, and assist schools in opening gyms and playgrounds during non-school hours to provide areas for children to safely play when they're not in school, the CDC said.

The report will be published this week in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.