After decades of rising childhood obesity rates, several U.S. 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.
In Stanislaus County, health officials have seen some encouraging patterns, but still want to analyze available data before drawing conclusions.
"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 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.
In Stanislaus County, data from the California Health Interview Survey showed that from 2003 to 2009, the obesity rate for children age 2 to 11 declined from 19.7 percent to 15.6 percent. During the same period, the obesity rate among teenagers rose slightly from 12.6 percent to 13.1 percent.
County officials also watch the results of statewide physical fitness testing done in schools, which tell how many children in certain grades are considered overweight. According to the 2010 results, 40.71 percent of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders in local schools were overweight, compared with 41.6 percent in 2005.
An initial look at the latest school testing numbers was disappointing, but county staff want to analyze the data further.
"I believe there has been progress," said Esmeralda Gonzalez, chronic disease prevention manager for Stanislaus County. "A lot of good nutrition programs and food services have been directed to improving nutrition for kids in schools. There has been a lot of momentum in getting kids active and eating healthier."
Gonzalez cited efforts by the county Office of Education that challenged schools to develop fitness projects. Local school districts have won awards for serving healthier meals in cafeterias, she added. County public health supports a program in west Modesto that encourages residents young and old to exercise and eat healthy foods.
Doing a double-take
A dip in obesity rates 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 Latino 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?' "
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 1 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 Grasela, the head of food services for the school district, stopped buying oil to fill them.
But the message seems to be getting through, even if acting on it is daunting.
Josh Monserrat, an eighth-grader at John Welsh Elementary, uses words like "carbs," and "portion size." He is part of a student group that promotes healthy eating. He has even dressed as an orange to try to get other children to eat better.
Still, he struggles with his own weight. He is 5-foot-3 but weighed nearly 200 pounds at his last doctor's visit.
"I was thinking, 'Wow, I'm obese for my age,' " said Josh, who is 13. "I set a goal for myself to lose 50 pounds."
Rate at historic highs
Nationally, about 17 percent of children under 20 are obese, or about 12.5 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which defines childhood obesity as a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex. That rate, which has tripled since 1980, has leveled off in recent years but has remained at historic highs, and public health experts warn that it could bring long-term health risks.
Some experts note that the current declines, concentrated among higher income, mostly white populations, are still not benefiting many minority children. For example, when New York City measured children in kindergarten through eighth grade from 2007 to 2011, the number of white children who were obese dropped by 12.5 percent, while the number of obese black children dropped by 1.9 percent.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson contributed to this report.