The beginning of the end of child obesity? For South LA, probably not

April 24, 2012, 4:11 p.m.

The prevalence of child obesity has begun to turn around in Eastern Massachusetts, but South L.A. has a long way to go due to unhealthy eating habits, a lack of access to affordable heath care and a lifestyle that's generally sedentary. (Credit: Don DeBoid/Flickr Creative Commons)

One state out of 50 isn't great – and it's only a part of one state, at that – but it's a start.

A new study appearing in the journal Pediatrics says that the rate of obesity in children under the age of six in eastern Massachusetts declined during the period between 2004 and 2008.

Researchers evaluated data from 108,862 well-child visits by 36,827 children and compared data from 1999-2003 and then 2004-2008. It found that in the latter period, "the obesity prevalence substantially decreased among both boys and girls."

The study also found that the decline in obesity was "more pronounced" among children who were insured by non-Medicaid health insurance plans, something that perhaps bodes ill for low-income communities affected by obesity – communities like South Los Angeles.

According to MSN/HealthDay, the study's authors wrote that "the smaller decrease in obesity prevalence in Medicaid-insured children suggests that the coming years may see a widening of socioeconomic disparities in childhood obesity."

The California Department of Health Care Services reported that there were over 2.3 million beneficiaries of Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program, in Los Angeles County in 2010.

And while nutritionist Nancy Copperman told MSN/HealthDay that the findings didn't make it clear if the decline is caused by "the things we're doing to prevent obesity," she did say it showed "some promise."

Per MSN/HealthDay, the study said targeting obesity prevention efforts at kids under six years old may be the most effective avenue, primarily because at that age, kids' habits tend to be more easily influenced by parents' examples.

As such, added the study, the example that parents set is crucial.

Brian Leung, director of the School Psychology Program and chair of the Department of Educational Support Services in Loyola Marymount University's School of Education, told OnCentral the same thing in February.

"Kids basically eat what their families eat, so an obese child often – not always – comes from an unhealthy family," he said. "Extended families do reinforce each other [in habits] of overeating. And if everyone is overweight, that doesn't seem abnormal and becomes the norm."

And of course, finances also play a role. Pediatric nutritionist Lauren Graf works at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City and told MSN/HealthDay that when "families are struggling financially, it's hard to focus on healthy foods."

"Many families don't have a lot of money to buy or cook food, and families don't always get the right messages from the things that are subsidized," she said. So, she added, even though the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program provides coupons for free juice, that doesn't change the fact that drinking too much juice is unhealthy, because of all the calories and sugar.

Added Leung: "There's a lack of information related to nutrition, a lack of time to cook good meals, due to long hours at low-paying jobs and getting home late," he said. "Fast food is often cheap and tempting, but has high sugar content, as well as a lot of carbs, fats and oils. And there's a feeling of entitlement to bad eating after a long day's hard work – people think, 'I've earned this,' 'I deserve this.'"

Rates of child obesity in South L.A. are higher than most other parts of the county, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health. Department statistics show that L.A. City Council's ninth district ranks 105th out of 119 areas measured for child obesity with a prevalence rate of 29.5 percent.

Photo by Don DeBoid via Flickr Creative Commons.

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