When you read a report from the American Medical Association that shows the obesity rate for children between the ages of two and five has dropped 43% in the past decade, it is certainly cause for celebration. To say this is good news is an understatement. This is not only the first time that any group has shown as significant a decrease since obesity rates have been measured, but it also happens to be in an extremely vital time frame in a person's life. (If a child is obese when they're between three and five years old, they are five times as likely to also be so as adults.) So, Hooray!
Not so fast. As you could tell by the title above, there sure are plenty of caveats to the study that need to also be considered.
First and foremost are the other findings included in the study, which don't paint so rosy a picture. For example, the prevalence of obesity in adults has remained stagnant, still affecting more than one-third of the adults in the country. (American youth have a 17% rate of obesity, a number that's also remained consistent over the past decade.) In fact, despite the eye-grabbing "stunningly low" infant obesity rates that seem to dominate the headlines of every piece mentioning the study, the actual conclusion states a far less positive position:
Conclusions and Relevance: Overall, there have been no significant changes in obesity prevalence in youth or adults between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012. Obesity prevalence remains high and thus it is important to continue surveillance.
But, still. The fact that youth rates have lowered as drastically as they have is a dramatic upset in the fight over obesity. The plan is working! We did it! Whatever programs have been utilized over the past decade to change the diets of America infants, keep 'em up! Except, well, even with that statistic, there's a big fly in the ointment. And that fly is the fact that the lowering obesity rates over the past decade mirror the same lowering rates of food security for the poor.
As Mark Ambinder over at The Week points out, this may be more than just a simple coincidence. Kids may be losing weight simply because they're not able to eat:
[F]ood prices increased rather dramatically in 2007 and 2008, then plunged dramatically as the global recession hit, and is now back up to between 2.5 percent and 3.5 percent a year, still higher than the average increase from 1991-2006. The lowest quintile of U.S. households spend on average about 11 percent of their total family earnings on food; for the wealthiest quintile, the figure is about 6 percent.
That means that poorer families in the country have had less money to spend on their food. Is it that big of a jump, then, to assume that having less money to spend on food leads to a lower obesity rate for the country's infants? That's the question that has yet to be answered, and one that we'll hopefully know once more data is released and more studies concluded.
Which isn't to say that this still isn't news that leans more in the positive direction than the negative. It's certainly a whole lot better than if the report showed a 46 percent increase in infant obesity rates. It's just that it pays to wait a bit for an examination of the whole picture before we start mistaking the inability of people being able to eat for the apparent success of current policies.
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