The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 19, 2013

Stopping obesity more than a crash diet

Why it matters: Minnesota's childhood obesity rate has dropped, but there is still much work to be done.


The Mankato Free Press

---- — Change in the childhood obesity rate is coming slowly but surely, much like a change in lifestyle rather than a crash diet.

Minnesota was among the states to receive the good news that its childhood obesity rate has dropped. The rate among low-income Minnesota children fell from 13.4 percent in 2008 to 12.6 percent in 2011. The biggest declines in the nation were in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota. Each saw their obesity numbers fall at least 1 percentage point.

The reason for the drop isn’t clear cut, with a number of factors likely coming into play; but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited a probable link to a change in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides food vouchers and other services to low-income families. The program eliminated juice from infant food packages, provided less saturated fat and made it easier to buy fruits and vegetables, including the acceptance of the vouchers at farmers markets.

Another possible explanation, according to health experts, is that breast-feeding rates have been increasing, and kids raised on mother’s milk tend to have lower obesity rates. Preschoolers who are overweight or obese are five times more likely than other children to be heavy as adults, which means higher risk of chronic health problems.

The amount of information circulating about the dangers of obesity are likely a factor behind people changing their behavior. Education about the dangers of excessive sugar consumption have reached enough people that the soda companies are doing the mad scramble to figure out a way to make up revenue losses.

The drop in childhood obesity rates obviously is great news and reveals education efforts and food program changes do have an effect. The CDC is stressing that partnerships with community groups and child care providers is a stepping stone to a lifetime of healthy habits. In Minnesota the Parent Aware program, which began as a pilot program here and is now expanding statewide, works with day cares and preschools to develop quality curriculum, including stressing the importance of good nutrition and exercise.

Yet, clearly there is still much work to do when it comes to curbing this epidemic. From teaching very young children good eating and exercise habits at home and school to making a stand with our pocketbooks by buying healthier products, the fight against obesity is ongoing.

Area residents are lucky to have access to healthier foods through its farmers markets and community gardens, including produce donated to low-income residents who use the ECHO Food Shelf. The BackPack Food Program provides children from low-income families nutritious snacks during weekends and school breaks when school meals are not available. And the Minnesota Valley Action Council is proposing a food hub concept in which the hub would purchase food from local farmers and then sell it to hospitals, public schools, colleges and restaurants. The idea is to make locally produced food more available on a larger scale.

Making healthy, flavorful food more readily available and more the norm than the exception is a key ingredient to getting children on the road to good health for a lifetime. Curing childhood obesity is a cultural shift, not a crash diet.

Other views on this topic:

“Obesity is a complex problem, and we know addressing it isn’t going to be quick and simple. We know it’s not going to turn on a dime.”

Dr. Tom Frieden, Centers for Disease Control

“We can reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. It isn’t some kind of unstoppable force.”

James Marks, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation