Encouraging sign

Dietitian: Drop in childhood obesity shows efforts are working

March 5, 2014

The significant drop in childhood obesity rates in America is a sign that nutrition education measures are working, according to a University of Wisconsin-Stout faculty member.

The obesity rate among children ages two to five fell 43 percent in the last 10 years, according to a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2004, 14 percent of U.S. children ages two to five were obese. The study published Feb. 26 in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that number had dropped to about 8 percent.

The rate is considered a bellwether of sorts because young children who are obese are five times more likely to be obese as adults.

Karen OstensoMessages about obesity and programs aimed at fighting it are having an impact on parents, said Karen Ostenso, a registered dietitian and director of the dietetics bachelor's degree program at UW-Stout.

"Parents with young children are more aware of the importance of nutritious eating and regular activity and play," Ostenso said. "These results bode well for the future of these children and our nation's fight against the obesity epidemic."

She believes consumers are more aware of nutrition issues when choosing foods, that the nutritional quality of food has improved and that more nutrition information is available to consumers.

"In addition, there has been an increase in the percentage of women breastfeeding, which is associated with decreased levels of childhood obesity," she said.

As early as 2000, public health officials began sounding the alarm over childhood obesity, Ostensosaid. Changes to the Women, Infants and Children federal program, the Let's Move! campaign promoted by first lady Michelle Obama and the Farmers Market Nutrition Program all have helped, Ostenso believes.

Students receive a snack at the UW-Stout Child and Family Study Center.Another such program is the Energy Balance 4 Kids with Play from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

In Wisconsin, two childhood obesity initiatives, Active Early and Healthy Bites, were developed for early care education professionals to help develop nutritious meals and incorporate age-appropriate physical activity so that children develop lifelong healthy habits, Ostenso said.

Young children at the Child and Family Study Center on UW-Stout's campus receive fruit but not fruit juice, for example. Their breakfast and snack menus are developed by a UW-Stout dietetics student working closely with the center's professional staff. A registered dietitian from University Dining Services develops the children's lunch menu, according to center Director Judy Gifford.

In 2007 an expert panel made seven recommendations to help reduce obesity in children, Ostenso said. They were:

  • Limiting consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Consuming recommended quantities of fruits and vegetables, nine per day with serving size varying by age
  • Limiting television and other screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television viewing before age two and no more than two hours of screen time per day after age two.
  • Eating breakfast daily
  • Limiting eating out at restaurants, particularly fast food restaurants
  • Encouraging family meals in which parents and children eat together. Family meals are associated with a higher-quality diet and with lower obesity prevalence, as well as with other psychosocial benefits. Modeling good eating habits and regular activity is important with this age group.
  • Limiting portion size, according to USDA recommendations.

Students in the dietetics program at UW-Stout take several courses related to childhood nutrition. In Maternal and Child Nutrition, students develop "competency in childhood nutrition at each developmental stage of growth, as well as assessing and managing nutritional needs based on sound scientific evidence," Ostenso said.

Another course, Community Nutrition, focuses on public health policy and programs in addition to federal guidelines that impact childhood nutrition, Ostenso said.

The CDC report is encouraging, Ostenso said, but there is plenty of work to do.

"It will be important to continue to monitor obesity trends in the United States among all age groups. Managing obesity is complex, and data is needed to provide evidence that progress is being made and progress is sustainable," she said.

For more information on the UW-Stout dietetics program, go to the website