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National vs. Local Obesity Rates in Young Children

Natalie Pacini/MEDILL

Recent data suggest large discrepancies between obesity rates in young children nationally and locally.

America's toddlers less obese, Chicago kids still at risk

by Natalie Pacini
Feb 27, 2014

Obesity in toddlers is dropping significantly nationwide, but overweight preschoolers in Illinois tip the scales at twice the national average.

Obesity rates in 2- to 5-year-old children have decreased 40 percent, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study analyzed National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data and concluded that, in 2003-2004, 13.9 percent of children in that age group were considered obese, compared to just 8.4 percent in 2011-2012.

Obesity is determined by measuring the body mass index (BMI), a combination of height and weight. Toddlers at or above the 95th percentile on the CDC sex-specific BMI-for-age growth charts were deemed obese.

“We continue to see signs that, for some children in this country, the scales are tipping,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a press release Tuesday. “We’ve also seen signs from communities around the country with obesity prevention programs including Anchorage, Alaska, Philadelphia, New York City and King County, Washington.”

But what about Chicago?

Preschoolers in Chicago are overweight at twice the national average, and one out of five Illinois children is obese, according to a December 2010 report from the Illinois Department of Health. Aside from social stigma, obese children may face higher risks for high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, the report says.

Factors contributing to this epidemic include nutritionally-deficient food served in childcare settings, lack of parental knowledge regarding proper nutrition, increased amounts of time spent in front of the television and computer, and the prevalence of food deserts.

But Chicago toddlers may actually be making gains – in a good way.

The obesity rates in Chicago kindergarteners have been decreasing steadily for the past few years, from 24 percent in 2003 and 22 percent in 2008 to 20 percent in 2010, according to Hannah Laughlin, a regional field manager for the Chicago-based Action for Healthy Kids organization.

Though there is no one specific reason for this good news, she said, local programs such as the Chicago Public Schools LearnWELL initiative to establish healthy habits have certainly played a positive role.

“Focusing on obesity prevention efforts at a young age can have a positive impact on health later in life,” she said.

The CDC study also found that although obesity in toddlers may be improving, the outlook is not as positive for all Americans. The prevalence of obesity in youth and adults remained stable in the same time period when toddler obesity decreased, according to the study. It reports that one-third of adults and 17 percent of older children are obese.