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Bessent: New data shows promising progress in the fight against obesity

Children play active video games at St. Patrick's

Children play active video games at St. Patrick's Elementary School in Huntington. School officials have decided to use video games to try to get children off the couch and into more vigorous physical exercise. (Sept. 19, 2012) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

After decades of rising rates of childhood obesity, there are hopeful signs of progress in the nation’s fat fight.

Several cities, including New York, have reported declines in the number of obese school children. The shrinkage is not massive. New York City documented a 5.5 percent drop in the number of obese school children from 2007 to 2011, according to news accounts. The declines are concentrated among white, higher income children, and researchers aren’t sure what’s driving them.

But however small or uneven, the declines in places as varied as Anchorage, Alaska; Kearney, Nebraska; Los Angeles; Philadelphia; and the state of Mississippi are an important sign that communities can do things that are effective in arresting the growth of this intractable health problem.

The declines were reported in cities and states that routinely measure the height and weight of school children. The rosiest view is that they may reflect a wider trend undocumented elsewhere. But what the places that reported falling rates have in common is obesity-reduction policies that have been in place for years.

They’ve done things such as taking sugary drinks out of school vending machines, making healthier snacks available, replacing whole milk with low fat varieties and pushing schools to move away from unhealthy choices like fried foods.

Philadelphia aggressively pursued changes like that and the most pronounced decline in obesity there is among minority children, particularly black boys and Hispanic girls.

Obese children are more likely to become obese adults, with an increased incidence of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. So reducing childhood obesity should help control another intractible national problem: the runaway cost of health care.