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An Encouraging Trend on Childhood Obesity

The child obesity numbers keep getting better in Georgia. 

The CDC has reported that 19 states saw a decrease in obesity from 2008 to 2011 among low-income children ages 2 to 4 years. And the 1.6 percentage point decline in Georgia was bigger than anywhere else except for the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

The latest data come after the state recorded a 5 percent drop in its overall childhood obesity figures. That moved Georgia's ranking as having the second most obese child population in the nation, which came from 2007 data, to No. 17 in the new figures, from 2011. 

For all the progress, state officials say there's still a ways to go in overcoming the problem of overweight and obese children.

"This CDC data proves we're moving in the right direction," said Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., commissioner of the state's Department of Public Health. "Once we see the full impact of Georgia SHAPE, we expect the numbers to be even greater."

Georgia SHAPE is Gov. Nathan Deal's campaign against childhood obesity. 

The CDC report "is certainly positive,'' Marsha Davis, associate dean for outreach and engagement at the University of Georgia's College of Public Health, said Wednesday. "What we need to do in Georgia is to capitalize on this trend.''

Davis added that many more programs in Georgia address child obesity than in the past, including at the community level.

The CDC report found a decrease in the low-income preschooler obesity rate of at least a percentage point in Florida, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota, besides Georgia and the Virgin Islands. Twenty states and Puerto Rico held steady at their previous rate. Obesity rates increased slightly in three states. The study did not include a few states. 

"Although obesity remains epidemic, the tide has begun to turn for some kids in some states," Tom Frieden, M.D., director of the CDC, said in a statement. "While the changes are small, for the first time in a generation they are going in the right direction. Obesity in early childhood increases the risk of serious health problems for life."

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, the nation's most prominent advocate for fighting childhood obesity, added a statement of her own: 

"Today's announcement reaffirms my belief that together, we are making a real difference in helping kids across the country get a healthier start to life. We know how essential it is to set our youngest children on a path towards a lifetime of healthy eating and physical activity, and more than 10,000 childcare programs participating in the Let's Move! Child Care initiative are doing vitally important work on this front."

Let's Move! is a national initiative developed by the first lady.

The CDC report, which analyzed weight and height for nearly 12 million children ages 2 to 4 years in federally funded maternal nutrition and child nutrition programs, found that one in eight preschoolers is obese. Black and Hispanic children have even higher rates than the population as a whole. 

A Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning official said Wednesday that the preschooler obesity rate decline is the result of work by many state agencies and community partners.

"We are making great strides [but] we still have a long way to go,'' said Jennifer Popadiuk, nutrition project manager with the department. "I hope that this study encourages everyone to continuing pushing forward with their initiatives so we can continue to see positive results such as these." 

Since 2009, the Department of Early Care and Learning has worked with dozens of child care centers on promoting wellness, good nutrition and physical activity, she said. Centers are encouraged to provide more fresh fruit and vegetables, more whole grains and less sugar-heavy foods. 

"Overall, a lot of child care centers are getting on board,'' said Popadiuk. "It's really important to reach out to these kids very early. They learn habits for a lifetime.''

The agency's "Quality Rated'' program rates child care centers based on, among other factors, nutrition and physical activity.

Public health officials said that while SHAPE was formally launched in 2012, it was preceded by several programs addressing healthier eating and healthier lifestyles for Georgia children. SHAPE has since brought those programs together, officials said. 

The challenge continues for kids in school. In the SHAPE program's recent fitness assessment, only 16 percent of Georgia students passed all five fitness tests. Twenty percent were unable to pass any of the FitnessGram tests.

Earlier this year, Commissioner Fitzgerald and state school Superintendent John Barge sent a letter urging Georgia's local school superintendents to consider adopting a daily 30-minute period of physical activity for elementary school students, to combat obesity.

-Story by Andy Miller, Georgia Health News