Childhood Obesity Dropped Significantly Over a Decade — As Did Food Security

The New York Times reports a "stunning" finding on childhood obesity: obesity rates among kids between 2 and 5 years old dropped 43 percent. Good news, but is the economy to blame?

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The New York Times reports a "stunning" finding on childhood obesity: between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012, obesity rates among kids between 2 and 5 years old dropped 43 percent. Good news, but is the economy to blame?

The data comes from a CDC report published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The scientific language below conveys the most important result:

There was a significant decrease in obesity among 2- to 5-year-old children (from 13.9% to 8.4%; P = .03) and a significant increase in obesity among women aged 60 years and older (from 31.5% to 38.1%; P = .006).

Obesity is up 21 percent among women over the age of 60, but down 46 percent among children. As the Times notes, that's significant in part because early childhood obesity is linked to lifelong weight problems: "Children who are overweight or obese between age 3 and 5 are five times as likely to be overweight or obese as adults." First Lady Michelle Obama, who has put an emphasis on reducing obesity, said in a statement that she is "thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years."

But as Marc Ambinder notes at The Week, that drop overlaps with another major trend in America: the economic downturn that began in 2008. "In general, the recession has reduced the disposable income available to populations with the highest rates of obesity," Ambinder writes. Poorer Americans spend almost the same percentage of their income on food at home as do wealthy Americans. The less money, the less food they can buy.

We can actually see the dramatic increase in food insecurity thanks to 2011 data from the Department of Agriculture. The agency calculates what it calls "food security" using a complex survey tool. Food insecurity is precisely what it sounds like: periods of time in which food is less available or harder to come by. There are tiers in food insecurity, too; "very low food security" means that at some points during the year, "the food intake of household members was reduced and their normal eating patterns were disrupted because the household lacked money and other resources for food."

The USDA has data on the number of children who lived in households with food insecurity over the time period the CDC looked at as well as the number of households with children that experienced "very low" food security. (The number of children, in thousands, is in blue below and pegged to the left axis. The number of housholds experiencing very low security is in gray, pegged to the right.)

What we see is a dramatic increase in the number of kids living in households that had trouble finding enough to eat — right when the economy went south.

There are important caveats. First, this is all children, not just kids aged 2 to 5. And second, a footnote indicates that "young children, in particular, are often protected from effects of the household's food insecurity" — meaning that 2 to 5 year olds are probably less likely to suffer from this sort of insecurity.

The report cites some reasons for the decrease in obesity — fewer calories from sugary beverages, an increase in breastfeeding — but, as the Times writes, "a full understanding remains elusive." Some kids in America are certainly not getting enough to eat. Hopefully — and probably — that's not why young children are less frequently obese.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.