Obesity rates have dropped among children aged 2 to 4 who are receiving public assistance under the WIC program, in the wake of nutritional changes enacted over the past few years.
The decrease was subtle, from 16% in 2010 to 14% in 2016, but the study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reflected results from earlier studies. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the results were deemed promising.
“It gives us more hope that this is a real change,” Heidi Blanck, who heads obesity prevention at the CDC, told the Associated Press.
WIC is a federal program for mothers who are pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum, as well as their children from infants up to age 5, living in low-income households.
Adding overweight children to the tally, the study also showed that the percentage of overweight and obese children overall declined from 32.5% in 2010 to 29.1% in 2016, noted the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to health.
These and other drops counted “statistically significant declines” overall, across all age, gender and racial/ethnic groups, the foundation noted.
The reasons were not clear, but could include WIC food packaging revisions, plus initiatives at the local, state and national levels.
“The changes are meaningful and substantial,” former CDC obesity expert William Dietz told AP.
Among other changes, kids are consuming less fruit juice and more low- or nonfat milk because of changes in what the program will assist in buying, Dietz said.
Indeed, amplifying the positive dietary changes could contribute to even more health gains, University of Maryland child development and nutrition specialist Maureen Black told AP.
In April a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicated that obesity risk was reduced among 4-year-olds who had been on WIC since birth after nutritional changes were introduced in the program.
The study was measuring changes in the content of WIC offerings made in 2009, when the program added fruits, vegetables and whole grains and cut the amount of juice, milk and cheese, according to a release from Tulane University. The program also cut fat levels allowed in milk and recalibrated infant formula.
As promising as the new statistics are, the obesity rate is still too high and needs to be monitored, Blanck told the health care news website Healio Primary Care.
“Despite progress, overall childhood obesity prevalence remains at 19% and for young children from low-income families enrolled in WIC, it is 14 percent,” Blanck told Healio Primary Care. “Primary care clinicians should maintain vigilance in child obesity prevention and treatment efforts for all children.”
Experts said the findings point to the benefit these programs bring to overall health and thus the greater good.
“The continued decline in obesity rates among children participating in WIC is encouraging and yet another indication that all eligible families should be able to participate in and benefit from this critical program,” Robert Wood Johnson Foundation senior program officer Jamie Bussel told the Daily News in an emailed statement. “WIC serves nearly half of all infants born in the United States and children from lower-income families are often at greatest risk for obesity. The new data show that overall obesity rates among children participating in WIC declined from 15.9% in 2010 to 13.9% in 2016, with statistically significant decreases among all racial and ethnic subgroups.”
Such results, Bussel said, reinforce the “positive impact WIC has on both women and children, from improving access to prenatal care to supporting early cognitive development.”
Bussel also noted that recent updates to WIC food requirements may have led stores to stock healthier options and families to buy more nutritious foods.
“That is why we must continue to protect and strengthen child nutrition programs, including WIC and the school meals programs,” Bussel said. “Helping all children grow up at a healthy weight remains one of our top priorities. The data released today are a sign that we are continuing to make meaningful progress toward this goal.”