For the first time in 30 years, the number of overweight schoolchildren in California is falling, suggesting that the state may finally be making some headway in the long battle to prevent childhood obesity, according to a report released Wednesday. But it's hardly time to start celebrating, public health officials said. Thirty-eight percent of public schoolchildren in fifth, seventh and ninth grades were overweight or obese in 2010 -- only 1.1 percent fewer than in 2005.
The report, put together by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, is at least reassuring that policies encouraging healthy behaviors in children might be starting to work.
"It gives us a little reason for hope, and there hasn't been much reason for a very long time," said Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. "At the same time, the rates are still abysmal. A lot more work still needs to be done."
Obesity rates skyrocketed in the United States in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, and they continued rising in the past decade, albeit at a slower rate. Teenagers today are three times more likely to be obese than 30 years ago, and elementary schoolchildren are four times more likely, according to state and national reports.
National rates of obesity in children started leveling off in 2008. California public health experts started noticing a similar trend in the past year or two, but only among certain demographic groups. The new report showed decreases -- although very small ones -- across all ethnic groups in California children.
In the previous report put out by the Center for Public Health Advocacy in 2005, the number of overweight and obese children had jumped 6 percent over a five-year period. So the fact that it fell, even a paltry 1 percent, is significant, public health officials said.
It's notable, they added, that the numbers appear to have started shifting just as public schools up and down the state began taking sugary sodas out of cafeterias and replacing tater tots and French fries with fresh fruit and salad bars.
"The key message is we can't stop now," said Dr. Kristine Madsen, a pediatrician with the University of California-San Francisco Center for Obesity Assessment, Study and Treatment. "We need to reinforce what's already been done and continue to think of new ways to reach kids, especially in areas that have been hardest hit."
The new report was based on height and weight data collected in the California Physical Fitness Test given to public school students, so it doesn't include children who attend private schools.
Researchers used the children's height and weight to calculate their body mass index, and report how many met the criteria for being overweight or obese. The BMI calculation results in a numerical score, and for this report, children with a BMI over 25 were considered overweight.
Los Angeles and other Southern California counties led the overall reduction in obese and overweight rates.
"I would have vastly preferred the numbers showing that we're getting better. But even if the numbers are going in the right direction, they're still hideously high," said Dr. Karen Smith, deputy director of the Napa County Health and Human Services Agency. "We need to make system changes. We need policy change at the highest levels. We need to look at how we're building our communities."
E-mail Erin Allday at eallday(at)sfchronicle.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com
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