by Marion Nestle
Dec 16 2011

Good news! Childhood obesity rates declining in NYC

Just in time for the holidays, we get some good news.   The New York City Health Department reports that rates of childhood obesity are falling.

If the rates were staying constant, I’d consider it a step forward.  But these results show rates going down, even if only by a few percentagel points.

The Bloomberg administration says the numbers are a result of its anti-obesity initiatives, some focused especially on children.  Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley told the New York Times that he attributes

the progress partly to the city’s aggressive advertising campaign against sugary sodas, which he said may have altered what parents were providing to their children. The city has also tried to add healthier options to school lunch menus, enacted strict rules on the calorie and sugar content of snacks and drinks in school vending machines, and even put limits on bake sales, a move that caused some grumbling.

As I explained to Bloomberg News,  if this trend continues, it will represent the first truly positive development in years.

It also suggests that the health department’s unusually aggressive efforts to address obesity may be paying off.  If so, they should inspire other communities to do the same kinds of things.  If nothing else, they raise awareness of the problem and help create an environment more conducive to healthy eating.

On the national level, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign also has raised awareness.  Could it be that we are getting to a tipping point?

It’s pretty clear by now what works.  A Cochane meta-analysis of 55 studies finds strong evidence to support beneficial effects of child obesity prevention programs on BMI, particularly for kids age 6 to 12.

The interventions showing the most promise are just like those in New York City:

  • School curriculum that includes healthy eating, physical activity and body image
  • School sessions for physical activity throughout the school week
  • Improvements in nutritional quality of the food supply in schools
  • Environments and cultural practices that support children eating healthier foods and being active throughout each day (see yesterday’s post)
  • Support for teachers and other staff to implement health promotion strategies and activities (e.g. professional development, capacity building activities)
  • Parent support and home activities that encourage children to be more active, eat more nutritious foods and spend less time in screen based activities

These are showing measurable benefits.  Shouldn’t every city start doing them?

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  • The link to the Cochrane analysis is messed up.

  • PDF of full Cochrane here and the landing page for the report is here.

  • It’s wonderful news, but I’d take issue with the statement that the initiative against bake sales has anything to do with the decline — the school board ended up preventing children from bringing home-baked goods to schools, while allowing items like Doritos to be sold. This kind of initiative, by promoting processed foods over homemade, can instill in children the very opposite of a healthy relationship with food.

  • Anthro

    Hooray! See what can happen when the community supports parents! I will forward this post to our Mayor.


    Seriously I am thrilled to see this but not surprised. Childhood obesity is at its core a simple problem with known solutions as described. We can solve this, but need to remain diligent and do everything we can to hurdle the many obstacles which exist, to the simple obvious changes which need to be made.

    A hearty congratulations to you Marion, and to the many, many other individuals who have invested so much in driving these changes.


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  • wa,cool. health is the most important thing.
    do sports when we have time.

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  • Penelope Fynn

    Amazing! Congratulations NY!

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  • I wish the same held true for areas in the Midwest. Although the Michelle Obama campaign may be making inroads, here in the Midwest our obesity rates seemingly keep increasing. I am thrilled for NYC- but one good turn does not a trend make. I DO hope it continues- for the sake of our children.

  • Joe

    Did anyone notice that only one of the interventions mentioned the parents and the home? All of the others put the responsibility on the schools for making kids less obese.

    Are those the same schools that have a hard time teaching math, science and reading? Probably, but as long as kids are thin all of that other stuff won’t really matter.

  • Michael Bulger

    Children spend a significant amount of time at schools. Just as worksites are an influential environment on adults, schools are important components in children’s dietary habits.

    Schools also provide support for children who don’t have the advantage of a stable or supportive home life. In addition to teaching math, science, and other important subjects, schools provide children with meals, peer interaction, and guidance from adults.

    It is vital that we provide children with a safe, constructive, and healthy place where they can grow, mature, and learn. Cheers to NYC for making an effort to support kids.

  • Vishal

    Interventions should be focused more toward the parents and their eating habits at home. It is the school’s responsibility to provide healthy meals but they should not be obligated to enforce the children to eat them. With that said, living a healthy lifestyle should be 100% the parents responsibility. If these habits began at home than perhaps the obesity prevalence in children may decrease. Also take a look at the numbers, though I agree that the slightest decrease in obesity rates is good, but is it really statistically significant?