While new national data show that childhood obesity is on the rise, Maine’s numbers offer a more promising story. Childhood obesity rates are starting to decline for some groups in Maine.

A study published in the March issue of Pediatrics shows that the national obesity rate for children aged 2 to 19 has increased, from 14.6 percent in 1999 to 18.5 percent in 2016. That means that almost one in five children has obesity. But here in Maine, where Let’s Go!, The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center, MaineHealth and dozens of other community organizations have led a coordinated approach to fighting childhood obesity, there are signs of success.

Let’s Go! partners with schools, out-of-school programs, child care programs and health care practices to increase physical activity and healthy eating for children from birth to 18 through policy and environmental change. By working with teachers, program directors, coaches and other staff who volunteer their time, Let’s Go! helps create environments that support healthy behaviors and promote the 5-2-1-0 healthy habits message: to strive each day for five servings of fruits or vegetables, two hours or less of TV/internet/texting time, one hour of physical activity and zero sugary drinks.

SIGNS OF CHANGE

Signs of change are everywhere: A high school snack shack collaborated with school nutrition staff and a local market to switch out unhealthy snacks for healthy, local choices – think carrot sticks instead of potato chips – and saw their sales remain high. Child care programs are replacing pre-lunch screen time with structured activities, so kids can stay productive while providers prepare a healthy lunch. Teachers are making time during class for five-minute “brain breaks,” so children can move and get their wiggles out. Teachers find kids more focused and ready to learn as a result, and additional five-minute breaks throughout the day help kids reach the recommended one hour of physical activity per day. Sugary drinks have been eliminated at 90 percent of Let’s Go! sites, and fruit and vegetable consumption is significantly higher at Let’s Go! schools.

Supporting all of this work in the community are Let’s Go! health care practices, where providers reinforce the 5-2-1-0 message that children are hearing in schools, at out-of-school programs and at child care programs. Providers have respectful conversations with children and families about healthy habits, building on the work already happening in the community. In the decade-plus that Let’s Go! has been monitoring childhood obesity rates in the Portland area, those rates have stabilized. Recent data also show a downward trend specifically among girls aged 3 to 18, from 13 percent in 2013 to 9.7 percent in 2016.

Data reported from the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey told a similar story. A significant decrease was seen in the rate of third-graders who have obesity, reported at 12.3 percent in 2017, down from 20.8 percent in 2015. In addition, the data appear to show a slight downward trend in obesity for fifth-graders, from 22.6 percent in 2015 to 19.1 percent in 2017.

NO SIMPLE SOLUTION

These rates are based on measured heights and weights, and they’re wonderful indicators that change is happening in Maine. But we can’t stop now. Without significant intervention, it is estimated that half or more of the American adult population will have obesity by 2030. As the authors of the study in Pediatrics point out, ongoing efforts to curb obesity “must continue, as must innovation, research and most importantly at this juncture, collaboration among clinicians, public health leaders, hospitals and all levels of government.”

While there is no single or simple solution to reverse the course of obesity’s rise, evidence points to changing policies and creating environments that support healthy choices as instrumental in the stabilization and reduction of obesity prevalence. The study in Pediatrics recommends the same kind of collaborative, coordinated strategy that Let’s Go! has employed since 2006, both with its earliest partners and most recently with its state collaborator, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Let’s Go! remains dedicated to increasing opportunities for healthy eating and active living through sustainable environmental and policy change, setting a positive example for the nation as a whole that is showing promising results.

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