California is making headway in the fight against childhood obesity, but the progress is largely uneven with some counties registering increases, according to a new study from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
According to the study, "A Patchwork of Progress: Changes in Overweight and Obesity Among California 5th, 7th and 9th Graders, 2005-2010," the percentage of overweight and obese children in the state dropped 1.1 percent from 2005 to 2010. However, 38 percent of children are still affected - a rate nearly three times higher than it was 30 years ago, when the obesity epidemic began.
The overall statewide improvement was cobbled together from 27 of California's counties. The remaining 31 counties all recorded increased rates of childhood obesity.
"Children's health is still at risk in a significant number of counties," said lead author of the study, UCLA's Susan Babey. "We found that 31 of California's 58 counties experienced an increase in childhood overweight over the five-year period from 2005 to 2010. We hope this county-by-county analysis will help community leaders pinpoint and take action in counties in the greatest danger."
According to the study, children who are overweight or obese often grow up to be obese adults with increased risk for chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, strokes and some cancers.
California spends more public and private money on the health consequences of obesity than any other state, at more than $21 billion annually.
Data for the study was drawn from the California Physical Fitness Test, which is administered annually to all California public school students in grades five, seven and nine. Measured height and weight data from the test were used to calculate body mass index and BMI was used to determine rates of overweight and obesity, based on the 2000 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sex-specific BMI-for-age growth charts. The study was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Stanislaus County was one of the counties to show an improvement in childhood obesity rates over the five year period. Childhood obesity rates dropped 2.1 percent in the county, according to the study. In 2005, Stanislaus County's childhood obesity rate was 41.60 percent and in 2010 it was 40.71 percent.
Merced County also saw a decrease in the rates. In 2005 the county had a rate of 44.50 percent and in 2010 the rate dropped to 43.75 percent for a 1.7 percent decrease, according to the study's findings.
San Joaquin County's rate increased over the five year time period by 2.4 percent.
The highest rates in the state were found in Imperial (46.9 percent), Colusa (45.7 percent), Del Norte (45.2 percent) and Monterey (44.6 percent) counties. Two of those counties, Del Norte and Colusa, also had the dubious distinction of having the highest increases over the last five years (16.2 percent and 13.3 percent, respectively).
Marin County, with 24.9 percent of children overweight or obese, had the lowest level in the state. However, the Marin County rate, historically the lowest in the state, has grown 5.5 percent since 2005.
"California led the nation in establishing many of the most innovative programs and policies that are improving our children's chances for a healthier life," said the CCPHA's Dr. Harold Goldstein. "Increased awareness and a growing array of school and community policies and programs are beginning to have an impact. But in light of the huge number of counties where childhood obesity rates continue to climb, our efforts must continue and even expand, especially in those areas where we now know children are most at risk."
At the local level the Turlock Unified School District and the Stanislaus County Office of Education have both implemented efforts to better the health of students. TUSD has begun the Real Fresh program, as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's school meals nutritional guideline. The program introduces more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low fat items into school lunches.
In the 2008-09 school year the SCOE began a campaign called "Fit for the Future" in an effort to decrease childhood obesity. By the end of that first year students had logged over one million active days, ranking them number one in the state. The program is still operating with individual districts opting to participate.
The Stanislaus County Public Health Agency has also stepped up efforts to turn the tide of obesity rates. Over the last year the Childhood Obesity/Diabetes Prevention Task Force has screened more than 1,300 children and adults for diabetes and increased efforts in their awareness campaign by reaching out to more than 8,000 school children.
So far, those efforts have yet to see any significant results. A 2011 public health survey by the agency found no statistical changes in the rate of diabetes for the county. Neither the state nor Stanislaus County showed any progress in the mortality rate of diabetes. The health agency stated this was cause for concern, because Stanislaus County has a high prevalence of some of the major health and behavioral risk factors leading to most chronic diseases such as diabetes. These factors include poor nutrition, lack of physical activity and being overweight or obese.
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