Childhood obesity: We’re at a watershed public health moment. What now?

From 2008 to 2011, obesity rates among preschool-age children dropped in 19 US states and territories. Unsurprisingly, news of the Centers for Disease Control’s findings lit our social media channels like a Christmas tree.

“This is the first report to show many states with declining rates of obesity in our youngest children after literally decades of rising rates,” CDC director Dr. Thomas Friedan told the press. “While the changes are small, for the first time in a generation they are going in the right direction.”

Childhood obesity: On the national news radar—and in one Baltimore school

We had our pick of stories to highlight about the news (every major media outlet and then some picked it up,) but of everything out there, Sabrina Tavernise’s piece in The New York Times was our favorite.

Tavernise did a masterful job of presenting a straightforward overview of the CDC’s report, and also presented a nuanced take on the difficulty of pinpointing causality. But where her reporting really stood out was in the connection she made between macro issues (widespread changes in national dietary trends and sweeping efforts to change children’s exercise and eating habits) and the on-the-ground experience of families in poor communities.

Families in Baltimore told Tavernise that, among the various factors had helped them turn around childhood obesity rates in their community, frontline experiences with diabetes and other obesity-related diseases had a big impact.Particularly telling was an interview with a 35-year-old pharmacy tech instructor and parent, Shannon Freeland.

[Freeland] said both her grandmothers died in their 50s. One, who weighed 300 pounds, had a heart attack, while the other died from diabetes after amputations that began with her toes and ultimately took both legs.

“Grandparents aren’t supposed to pass like that,” said Ms. Freeland, whose first child, Iren, was overweight as a toddler. “That’s when it started to click for me.”

She added, “We were pricking Iren’s finger at age 2, and that was scary for me.”

(Read the full story here)

The takeaway

What should the juxtaposition of the CDC’s report and Shannon Freeland’s story tell us? First that we can take heart: Working together, we can drive change. Second, that we should understand just exactly how common that needle prick has become. Good news aside, one in eight American preschoolers remains obese. Among low income kids, the number is one in seven. Among Hispanics, it’s one in six. Among blacks, it’s one in five.

That’s too many kids getting pricked.

So, where do we go from here? We need to keep pressing ahead—everywhere: On public health policies, on personal habits, and in our schools and communities. We’re at a watershed public health moment. Significant reductions won’t come fast or easy, but the evidence is beginning to show that if we all work together, pushing for change on multiple fronts, we can turn the tide.

Read Sabrina Tavernise’s piece, “Poor Children Show a Decline in Obesity Rate,” at the New York Times.