New report shows California child obesity rates leveling off

11/09/2011 12:00 AM

08/08/2012 1:12 PM

More than one in three California children are still unhealthily overweight, but that number has finally, at the very least, stopped rocketing skyward.

The number of children packing extra pounds even appears to be declining – barely.

That's according to a study released today by the Davis-based California Center for Public Health Advocacy and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

Until now, the picture has looked nothing but bleak. The same researchers' last report, in 2005, found childhood obesity rising every year.

The new figures show that, after peaking at 38.5 percent in 2005, the percentage of overweight and obese children in California has stopped rising. By last year, it had shrunk slightly to 38 percent.

"We finally have reason for hope in the childhood obesity epidemic," said Harold Goldstein, CCPHA executive director.

If the trend continues, it would mean that California is turning the tide on an epidemic that has exploded in recent decades, costing the state billions of dollars and subjecting tens of thousands of children to higher risks of heart disease, diabetes, asthma and obesity in adulthood.

It would also suggest that the wave of public awareness, policies and programs against childhood obesity that began in California around 2005 – including new nutrition standards for school lunches and a ban on selling sugary sodas on school campuses – has made a difference, the researchers contend.

Rather than resting on laurels, Goldstein said, the new numbers should prompt us to "double our efforts" to keep things headed in the right direction. "Obesity rates are still intolerably high," he said.

Researchers calculated their numbers by taking height and weight data from the California Physical Fitness Test, administered annually in grades five, seven and nine, and converting it to Body Mass Index.

They found that statewide progress between 2005 and 2010 was patchy, with some counties leaping ahead and some regressing. The next step, Goldstein said, is to look closely at counties that have seen the biggest improvements and ask why.

Sacramento and Yolo counties essentially flatlined, seeing stable rates of around 36 percent and 36.9 percent, respectively. Placer County posted an improvement, from 27.2 to 25.8 percent of children overweight or obese, as did El Dorado County, where the rate dropped from 26.5 to 25.7 percent.

When Heather Deckard started teaching in the Sacramento City Unified School District 11 years ago, she said she remembers having "a 10-year-old who was 300 pounds, and he wasn't the only one. We're still seeing some of those, but they're not as many."

Deckard, now the district's physical education coordinator, said given all the efforts under way, she expects those anecdotal signs of progress to turn into hard numbers soon.

The district this year has made Deckard's position full time and is expanding its partnership with the Sacramento Kings' Get Fit With the Kings program, which encourages kids to exercise. Schools are now testing students' fitness at the start of the school year, rather than in the spring, so that they have time to help the heaviest kids get fitter. District officials in April created the Healthy Foods Task Force to improve cafeteria fare and weave nutrition lessons into the curriculum.

With state, city and school district leaders all sounding the alarm on children's health, Deckard said, "We're finally making the changes we needed to make."

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