THURSDAY, Jan. 17, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Both New York City and Los Angeles are beginning to see real declines in childhood obesity rates, with policies initiated earlier in New York giving that city an edge, a new study shows.
"In New York City, the prevalence of obesity appeared to have peaked around 2003-2004, whereas in Los Angeles it appeared to have leveled off around 2008-2009 and started to decline in 2010-2011," said study author Jackson Sekhobo, director of research and evaluation in the division of nutrition at the New York State Department of Health.
Los Angeles trailed New York City in making strides against childhood obesity largely because New York unveiled a government program that promoted healthy behaviors among low-income kids sooner, Sekhobo said.
"The New York State WIC [Women, Infants and Children] program was among the first programs to bring attention to the growing epidemic of child obesity in the mid-1990s," he explained.
As part of the program, health officials began promoting nutrition messages in a citywide initiative called "Eat Well Play Hard," Sekhobo said. Messages focused on drinking low-fat milk, "which was innovative at the time," he noted.
The program also promoted eating more fruits and vegetables and exercising, along with aggressively supporting breast-feeding and limiting television viewing for young children, he said.
"New York City has been experiencing declines for several years, while Los Angeles has just peaked," Sekhobo noted. "There are other cities where the problem of childhood obesity is still growing."
Sekhobo said similar initiatives are spreading across the country.
"These efforts should be sustained, but change does take time," he said. "This is not something that can be done overnight."
One expert agreed.
"These findings suggest that ongoing education, support and approaches that target specific cultural and socioeconomic groups can have positive effects in reducing childhood obesity," said Samantha Heller, clinical nutrition coordinator at the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn.
"However, there is still much that needs to be done to encourage our families and children to be healthy," she said.
Educating parents as well as children on the importance of healthful food and regular physical activity may help shift cultural habits in a more positive direction. Limiting the number of fast-food restaurants in low-income areas and around schools may also make a dent in childhood obesity rates, Heller said.
"Bringing the healthy lifestyle message into the schools will be helpful as well. Nutrition programs and physical activity programs in schools for children of all ages should be a required part of the curriculum, and can help turn the tide toward reducing childhood obesity," she said.
The study was published in the Jan. 18 issue of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
For more information on childhood obesity, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.