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New Hampshire childhood obesity rate dropped since 2008

New Hampshire is one of 19 states where childhood obesity rates declined in a national survey of low-income children released last week.

One state official credited consistently high breastfeeding rates in the state and changes several years ago to the Women Infants and Children nutritional support program. Another expert cautioned that the news, while welcome, may be related to more complex factors, including the economy.

The survey measured the heights and weights of about 20,000 children ages 2-5 receiving nutritional support.

In 2008, 15.5 percent of them were considered obese. In 2011, the most recent year of the survey, that rate fell to 14.6 percent.

Thirty states, including Vermont, had a lower rate of childhood obesity in the 2011 survey, but New Hampshire’s rate was lower than Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

No information was available from Maine, one of 10 states that either didn’t collect data consistently, changed the way it collected data or didn’t participate in the survey.

The survey focused on children in the nutritional support program because low-income families are the most likely to suffer from obesity, and preschoolers who are overweight or obese are five times more likely than their normal-weight peers to be overweight or obese as adults.

“We’re looking at preschoolers so you can prevent adult obesity. And we’re very optimistic this is a trend we’re going to see continue,” said Lisa Richards, WIC nutrition services manager with the state Division of Public Health Services.

WIC, a federal grant program, provides nutritional assistance for pregnant women, infants and toddlers in families earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2009, the federal outline of WIC benefits changed to focus the assistance more on providing fresh, healthy foods.

The changes provided recipients with a new cash-value voucher for produce that in 2009 was worth $6 for each child and $10 for each breast-feeding mother. Other vouchers specifically promoted the purchase of whole grain foods in place of some dairy products such as cheese.

The program also limited whole milk to breastfeeding women and toddlers under age 2; other children on the program now get vouchers for low-fat milk.

Breastfeeding has also been linked to better health for children, and New Hampshire has the fifth-highest rate of new mothers who breastfeed.

Despite the dramatic changes, Dartmouth College economics professor Patricia Anderson, who has studied childhood obesity for the past 10 years, said to be wary of experts giving one factor sole credit for falling obesity rates.

Some experts in national news stories about the rates pointed to healthier school lunches and more physical activity programs in schools, for example, but the study looks only at children ages 2 through 5, so those programs are unlikely to have much effect, Anderson said.

“It’s usually lots of little things, and this is encouraging but probably not as encouraging as some are making it out to be. . . . The numbers are fairly small, and this is a time of economic upheaval. This survey focuses on low-income kids, the population of which is going to be changing a bit as we go into the Great Recession,” she said.

As unemployment rose during the recession, families that were higher on the socio-economic ladder – and therefore less likely to suffer from obesity – slipped into poverty and entered the survey sample.

Anderson also questioned the impact breastfeeding could have on the childhood obesity rate.

Women who breastfeed typically care more about their children’s health even after that, and studies looking at siblings within a family show there’s no difference in outcomes if one is breastfed and the other is not or is breastfed for a shorter time, she said.

“I think breastfeeding is great, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “There’s lots of reasons to do it, but I’m not sure making sure your kid’s not going to be fat is the biggest one.

“I’ve mostly found that there’s not just one thing you can change that will change all the problems in an area. Just like the ads saying ‘Do this one thing and lose belly fat,’ there really is no one thing that can affect these rates.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or
spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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