Health

Obesity is on the decline among Kentucky toddlers whose moms get food assistance from a federal program, according to a new report out Thursday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study applied to toddlers ages two- to four-year-old who were enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). It’s for pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, as well as children up to age five who have lower incomes.

Nearly 16 percent of kids ages two to four with WIC were obese in 2016, a drop from about 18 percent in 2010. While the number is moving in the right direction, Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks cautioned that Kentucky still lags behind most of the U.S.

“The bad news is that only six states have a worse obesity rate than we do,” Brooks said, referring to toddlers in WIC. “So while we’re doing good, we in no way want to think that it’s arrived.”

And other kids in Kentucky aren’t seeing the same drop in obesity. Almost 21 percent of youth between ages 10 and 17 are obese, according to recent data from the 2017 and 2018 National Survey of Children’s Health, a rate that has held steady for the past few years and puts Kentucky as third highest in obesity among that age group, behind Mississippi and West Virginia.

“It’s important to realize that this particular study is applicable to a pretty narrow population range; we don’t want to over generalize for kids or families in general,” Brooks said.

There are efforts underway in Frankfort to make toddlers overall healthier. Kentucky Youth Advocates is pushing for potential legislation that would improve nutrition standards at childcare centers, including mandating they serve fruits, vegetables and water.

“A lot of those two- to four-year-olds spend a lot of their day in a childcare center,” Brooks said. “We know that part of the dialogue in Frankfort is, how to make sure that not just some, but every child care center meets standards on nutrition and that those [toddlers] spend time in vigorous physical activity.”

Obesity matters, according to the World Health Organization, because it’s associated with higher risks of heart conditions, asthma, fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes later on in life. And it’s especially high in kids who live with lower-income parents.

Kids who are obese also are four times as likely to stay obese into adulthood than their non-obese peers. Dave Langdon, spokesman with the Louisville Metro Department for Health and Wellness, said they see a lot of success with Louisville’s WIC program.

“It’s good to see this new documentation that WIC reduces obesity in the children it serves; we know that obesity in childhood can lead to obesity in adulthood, which in turn leads to such chronic conditions as diabetes and heart disease,” he said.

Nearly 37 percent of Kentucky adults in 2018 were obese, compared to 31 percent nationwide.

The CDC wrote that there are likely a few factors playing into lower WIC toddler obesity rates not just in Kentucky, but across the U.S. The food available for moms and pregnant women to buy with a WIC card became healthier in 2009. Information given to moms on feeding infants also were updated that year to align with newer scientific nutritional standards.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.