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Signs of progress? Obesity among Philly’s kids is down

For the Booster Shots blog

Obesity among Philadelphia’s nearly 900,000 schoolchildren has ticked downward slightly, a new study says, suggesting that efforts to reverse the rising tide of fat among the nation’s children are paying off.

In 2009-2010, 20.5% of the Philly’s kids weighed in as obese, and 7.9% were considered “severely obese.” Writing in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, a team of Philadelphia public health officials and researchers called those figures “unacceptably high.” But they noted that the latest statistics are down from measures taken in 2006-2007, when 21.5% of Philadelphia’s schoolchildren were obese and 8.5% were severely obese.

“The epidemic of child obesity may have begun to recede in Philadelphia,” the authors concluded.

The findings in Philadelphia are “very similar” to trends documented in New York City and much like those seen in the state of Arkansas -- both places where the body-mass indices (BMI) of public schoolchildren have been routinely measured and published. And it’s consistent with national data that have shown that the growth of child obesity may be leveling off.

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Whether Philly’s kids are evidence of a “true change in the epidemic” or just a statistical blip will have to await further readings, the authors wrote. Recent years have seen citywide campaigns aimed at improving the nutritional value of school lunches, increasing schoolkids’ physical activity, and limiting access to junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages in schools. If a turnaround in the obesity epidemic is real, the authors wrote, those campaigns should help accelerate the early signs of change shown in the current study.

Breaking down the new data, the Philadelphia study found the largest decreases in obesity were among Latina girls (whose obesity rates went from 22.3% to 20.6%) and African American boys (whose obesity rates declined to 19.1% from 20.7%). Non-Latino white males also saw declines in obesity that were considered statistically significant.

Mississippi, where rates of child obesity are among the nation’s highest, has also seen a reduction in the proportion of overweight and obese children since 2005, said a report prepared by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In California, those numbers have been far more modest, although schoolchildren’s fitness levels appear to be on the rise.

In an accompanying commentary, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Dr. James S. Marks of the foundation  wrote that Philadelphia’s progress is “crucial proof of the concept that communities can reduce obesity rates -- and do so in a way that helps close the disparities gap” between ethnic groups.

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