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PHILADELPHIA — After decades of rising childhood obesity rates, several American cities are reporting their first declines.
The trend has emerged in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, as
well as smaller places like Anchorage, Alaska, and Kearney, Neb. The
state of Mississippi has also registered a drop, but only among white
“It’s been nothing but bad news for 30 years, so the fact that we have
any good news is a big story,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, the health
commissioner in New York City, which reported a 5.5 percent decline in
the number of obese schoolchildren from 2007 to 2011.
The drops are small, just 5 percent here in Philadelphia and 3 percent
in Los Angeles. But experts say they are significant because they offer
the first indication that the obesity epidemic, one of the nation’s most
intractable health problems, may actually be reversing course.
The first dips — noted in a September report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — were so surprising that some researchers did not believe them.
Deanna M. Hoelscher, a researcher at the University of Texas, who in
2010 recorded one of the earliest declines — among mostly poor Hispanic
fourth graders in the El Paso area — did a double-take. “We reran the
numbers a couple of times,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘Will you please
check that again for me?’ ”
Researchers say they are not sure what is behind the declines. They may
be an early sign of a national shift that is visible only in cities that
routinely measure the height and weight of schoolchildren. The decline
in Los Angeles, for instance, was for fifth, seventh and ninth graders —
the grades that are measured each year — between 2005 and 2010. Nor is
it clear whether the drops have more to do with fewer obese children
entering school or currently enrolled children losing weight. But
researchers note that declines occurred in cities that have had obesity
reduction policies in place for a number of years.
Though obesity is now part of the national conversation, with aggressive
advertising campaigns in major cities and a push by Michelle Obama,
many scientists doubt that anti-obesity programs actually work.
Individual efforts like one-time exercise programs have rarely produced
results. Researchers say that it will take a broad set of policies
applied systematically to effectively reverse the trend, a conclusion
underscored by an Institute of Medicine report released in May.
Philadelphia has undertaken a broad assault on childhood obesity for
years. Sugary drinks like sweetened iced tea, fruit punch and sports
drinks started to disappear from school vending machines in 2004. A year
later, new snack guidelines set calorie and fat limits, which reduced
the size of snack foods like potato chips to single servings. By 2009,
deep fryers were gone from cafeterias and whole milk had been replaced
by one percent and skim.
Change has been slow.Schools made money on sugary drinks, and some set up rogue drink machines that had to be hunted down.Deep
fat fryers, favored by school administrators who did not want to lose
popular items like French fries, were unplugged only after Wayne T.
Grasela, the head of food services for the school district, stopped
buying oil to fill them.