Photo of weight scaleThe obesity rate in children ages 2 to 5 dropped 43 percent during the past decade,  according to research published Tuesday in the Journal  of the American Medical Association.

The prevalence of obesity for these young children fell from 14 percent in 2003-2004 to just over 8 percent in 2011-2012 – based on the Centers for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data.

“This confirms that at least  for kids, we can turn the tide and begin to reverse the obesity epidemic, ” said CDC Director Tom  Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.

The drop is important because young children who are overweight or obese are more likely to be overweight or obese as adults. In addition, obesity in children is causing a broad range of health problems that previously was not  seen until adulthood. These include high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels.

There are also psychological effects — obese children are more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image and depression. Excess weight at young ages has been linked to higher and earlier death rates in adulthood.

The reason for the decline is unclear, although childcare centers have started to improve their nutrition and  physical activity standards over the past few years, according to the CDC.  Decreases in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in children and improved breastfeeding  rates in the United States may also be factors.

“I  am thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years in obesity rates  among our youngest Americans,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “With the participation of kids, parents, and communities in  Let’s Move! these last four years,  healthier habits are beginning to  become the new norm.”

The CDC data showed no significant changes in obesity prevalence among 2-19 year olds or adults in the United States.

The drop came as welcome news to organizations working to draw attention to childhood obesity, although there was caution that more work needs to be done.

“Efforts of organizations such as the American Heart Association have been instrumental in slowing the incidence of obesity in the United States,” said Elaine M. Urbina, M.D., M.S., director of preventive cardiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and professor of Pediatrics (Cardiology) at the University of Cincinnati and a volunteer for the association.

“However, even though these new data suggest we may be seeing a plateau in the ‘obesity epidemic,’ there is still an unacceptable prevalence of obesity in our country even in infants and toddlers,” said Urbina, who is the chair of the association’s Atherosclerosis, Obesity and Hypertension in the Young scientific committee. “Therefore, we need to continue stressing healthy lifestyle, so that all Americans reach the American Heart Association’s ideal health goals by the year 2020.”

The American Heart Association in 2010 set a national goal to reduce deaths from heart disease and stroke by 20 percent, and to increase the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent, all by 2020. Reducing obesity is an important aspect of reaching what the association calls the “2020 Impact Goal.”

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