THURSDAY, April 25, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Changes made to improve nutrition in a U.S. government food assistance program seem to have triggered a drop in obesity rates among young, poor children, a new study finds.
In 2009, food packages from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) were made more healthy by adding fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and by reducing the amount of juice, milk and cheese.
The program also reduced fat levels allowed in milk and started to determine infant formula amounts based on infants' age and needs.
"Our study shows that improving nutrition quality made a measurable impact in lowering obesity risk for children receiving the new food package, compared to those receiving the old," said study author Pia Chaparro. She's an assistant professor of nutrition at Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.
"Our results suggest that changes in children's diet early in life could have a positive effect on their growth and reduce obesity risk, which could be informative for policymakers considering further improvements to the WIC program," Chaparro added in a Tulane news release.
In the study, Chaparro and colleagues analyzed data from more than 180,000 children served by the WIC program in Los Angeles County and found that the nutrition improvements reduced obesity risk among 4-year-olds.
Children are eligible to remain in the program until age 5.
Specifically, the risk of obesity among children who received the new food package from birth to age 4 was 12% lower for boys and 10% lower for girls, compared with children who received the old food package from birth until age 4.
The biggest differences between the two groups began to appear at 6 months of age, suggesting that a more nutritious diet was associated with healthier growth early in life, according to the researchers.
"The beneficial effect of being exposed to the new food package, compared to the old one, was much stronger during the 6-months-to-1-year age interval, and this difference between the two groups during this age interval was large enough to set children in the new food package group on a healthier growth trajectory through age 4," said Chaparro.
Among children who started receiving the new package at age 2, there was an 11% lower risk of obesity at age 4 among boys, but no reduced risk among girls. The reasons for this difference are unclear.
The study was published April 23 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on childhood obesity.