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Federal health authorities on Tuesday reported a stunning 43 percent drop in the obesity rate among 2- to 5-year-old children over the past decade, the first broad decline in an epidemic that often leads to lifelong struggles with weight and higher risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke.

The drop emerged from a major federal health survey that experts say is the gold standard for evidence on what Americans weigh.

New evidence has shown that obesity takes hold young: Children who are overweight or obese between ages 3 and 5 are five times as likely to be overweight or obese when they’re adults.

A smattering of states have reported modest progress in reducing childhood obesity in recent years, and last year federal authorities noted a slight decline in the obesity rate among low-income children.

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But the figures Tuesday showed a sharp fall in obesity rates among all 2- to 5-year-olds, offering the first clear evidence that America’s youngest children have turned a corner in the obesity epidemic. About 8 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds were obese in 2012, down from 14 percent in 2004.

“This is the first time we’ve seen any indication of any significant decrease in any group,” said Cynthia Ogden, a researcher for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the author of the report, which will be published in The Journal of the American Medical Association on Wednesday. “It was exciting.”

She cautioned that these young children make up a tiny fraction of the U.S. population and that the figures for the broader society had remained flat.
For women over 60, the obesity rate had increased.

Also, the only decline was seen in preschoolers, not in older children. And some experts note that even the improvement in toddlers wasn’t a steady decline, saying it’s hard to know yet whether preschooler weight figures are permanently curving down or merely jumping around.

Still, the lower obesity rates in the very young are a good sign for the future, Ogden said.

In Washington state, a report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found the obesity rate among students in poor King County school districts had dropped significantly after those schools adopted programs promoting exercise and more healthful eating.

That study showed a 17 percent decline between 2010 and 2012 in the obesity rate among eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders in the seven participating school districts — most in South King County.

It was the first significant decline in the rate since the state began tracking it 10 years ago, and substantially narrows the gap between wealthier and poorer school districts.

Nationwide, experts point to several possible explanations for the decline but say a full understanding remains elusive:

• Children consume fewer calories from sugary beverages than they did in 1999.

• More women are breast-feeding, which can lead to a healthier range of weight gain for young children.

• Federal researchers have also chronicled a drop in overall calories for children in the past decade, down by 7 percent for boys and 4 percent for girls, but health experts said those declines were too small to make much difference.

Another explanation is that some combination of state, local and federal policies aimed at reducing obesity is starting to have an effect.

First lady Michelle Obama has led a push to change young children’s eating and exercise habits, and 10,000 child-care centers across the country have signed on. Many scientists doubt that anti-obesity programs actually work, but proponents of the programs say a broad set of policies applied systematically over a period of time can affect behavior.

The news announcement from the CDC included a remark from Obama: “I am thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years in obesity rates among our youngest Americans.”

Health officials last year reported at least slight drops in obesity for low-income preschoolers in 18 states. But they mainly were children enrolled in the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides food vouchers and other services.

Experts attributed the improvement to WIC policy changes in 2009 that eliminated juice from infant food packages, provided less saturated fat and made it easier to buy fruits and vegetables.

The new study is a national survey of about 9,100 people — including nearly 600 infants and toddlers — in 2011-2012, in which participants were not only interviewed but weighed and measured. The results were compared with four similar surveys that stretched back to 2003.

“I think it’s fair to say that (this study) is probably the best source of data we have on whether the prevalence of obesity is increasing with time,” said Dr. Robert Whitaker, a Temple University expert on childhood obesity.

Some experts were more cautious about the results.

The preschooler obesity numbers fell from 14 percent in 2003-2004 to 10 percent in 2007-2008, then jumped to 12 percent in 2009-2010, then slipped to 8 percent in the most recent survey.

So it seems to have been bouncing around a little. “We’re going to need more” years of data to see if the apparent trend is really nosing downward, said John Jakicic, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center.

Some wondered whether it makes sense that preschoolers would be the ones leading a downward trend in childhood obesity. For years, most childhood anti-obesity initiatives were older-kid efforts such as removing soda vending machines from schools and increasing physical education.

Apart from the WIC policy change, there’s been less of a push regarding preschoolers. “Relative to older children, less has been done” to fight obesity in toddlers, Whitaker said.

Lingering questions aside, Jakicic said he was still glad to see the numbers. “I think we should be excited it’s not getting worse,” he said.

Includes material from The Associated Press and Seattle Times archives

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