New Hampshire Shows Decrease in Pediatric Obesity

The obesity rate for preschoolers in New Hampshire has "significantly decreased," according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. In 2008, 15.5 percent of New Hampshire children were considered obese; in 2011, that rate fell to 14.6 percent.

"This is very exciting news," says Susan Lynch, MD, pediatric lipid specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. "This is the first significant drop that we've seen in pediatric obesity and it's in the preschool population. It's significant because it is such a large study."

The study analyzed the heights and weights of over 11-million children ages 2 to 4 from a survey taken 2008 to 2011. Results showed that obesity among low-income preschoolers declined in 19 of 43 states and territories studied.

No single cause has been determined for the decline, but researchers believe many factors may have influenced the outcome: limiting sugary beverages, a proliferation of health and nutrition information, community and government interventions – such as First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative – more physical activity and the push toward breastfeeding.

"Study after study has shown that children who are breastfed are at lower risk for obesity," says Lynch. "I think it's interesting that it's recently been announced that breastfeeding rates in the U.S. are up about 70 percent from a decade ago. We can't say for sure there is a cause and effective, but it certainly is supportive." In addition, New Hampshire was ranked number 1 in perinatal care in a CDC study released earlier this year,

Yet, Lynch is quick to point out that several factors play into the obesity epidemic and several factors likely influenced the recent CDC findings. "The data is really reflective of a lot of changes in all areas across New Hampshire, even down to the way we build our communities, our transportation, our walking and biking trails. Also, HEAL NH has certainly had a huge impact." The state-wide program has been instrumental in helping to create nutritional and fitness programs across the state, spearheading the move in schools for access to nutritional foods and healthy living programs.

"Seeing children, as we do in our clinic, who come in with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other complications of obesity, we know that sometimes just losing five pounds is enough to turn those problems around," explains Lynch. "They can improve their health dramatically with just very small changes. It doesn't take a whole lot to make a big difference."

Even with the recent decline in rates, about one in eight preschoolers is obese in the U.S. Children who are overweight or obese as preschoolers are five times as likely as normal-weight children to be overweight or obese as adults. "There's more work to be done for sure," says Lynch, "but we're moving in the right direction."