August 16th, 2010
05:41 PM ET

Progress against childhood obesity reported; minorities lag

Obesity rates have started to decline for many teens but continue to increase for some ethnic and racial minorities, according to a new study.

“This is the first time in more than three decades that we’ve seen some progress, but only with some groups,” explained lead author Kristine Madsen, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco. The study is published online and will appear in the September issue of Pediatrics.

Madsen’s study examined records from more than 8 million California schoolchildren. California has monitored children's body mass indexes since 2001 by conducting school-based BMI screenings for all fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade public schoo children as part of a state mandate to assess fitness. BMI measures body fat percentage, using height and weight measurements. Children are considered overweight when their BMI is at the 85th percentile, and obese when they are at or above the 95th percentile.

While the study reveals promising decreases in the rates of obesity among white and Asian youths since 2005, obesity rates among black and American Indian girls continued to grow through 2008, while Hispanic girls maintained their weight after 2005.

Madson attributed the drop in obesity rates to some of the actions that California has enacted, such as removing sodas from vending machines at schools and emphasizing healthy fare in school cafeterias.

While the study was centered in California, because of the ethnic diversity of the state – 46.4 percent Hispanic, 32.8 percent white, 12.6 percent Asian, 7.7 percent black, and 0.5 percent American Indian – the findings apply to national trends.

Childhood obesity needs to be fought where kids spend a lot of time, Madsen explained. “One of the biggest things is changing school policy – having physical education classes, offering healthy foods. California has nutritional standards, but still, what is served in lunch lines may not be ideal.” She also noted that economic factors play a role for many of the teens who are overweight.  They often live in neighborhoods where fast food is ubiquitous, and supermarkets are not easily accessible, making healthy eating difficult, if not impossible.

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