According to data published Nov. 22 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, obesity among children 2 to 4 years old from low-income families enrolled in WIC fell significantly in 41 of the 56 states and territories that offer the program.
In seven WIC states and territories, obesity fell by more than 3% between 2010 and 2016, with the largest significant decrease occurring in Puerto Rico, where adjusted obesity prevalence among WIC beneficiaries 2 to 4 years old fell by 8.2 percentage points from 2010 to 2016, according to the study. In contrast, only three states – Alabama, North Carolina and West Virginia – saw significant increases in obesity, the study reports. These findings combined at a national level reveal the obesity rate of 2- to 4-year-olds enrolled in WIC fell from 15.9% to 13.9%.
These improvements build on previous research that found obesity fell among WIC participants in 34 of the 56 participating states between 2010 and 2014.
While these decreases may seem small, they are notable in context with the national trend of all children aged 2 to 5 years which increased to 13.9% in 2015-2016 compared to 8.4% in 2011-2012, the researchers noted.
“These widespread declines in obesity rates are encouraging,” and likely due to changes made to WIC in the last decade, Jamie Bussel, a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in a statement.
These changes include updating the WIC package in 2009 to better align with nutrition research and the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and infant food and feeding practice guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics. These changes include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lower-fat milk; broader support for breastfeeding and giving WIC agencies more flexibility to accommodate cultural food preferences, according to the research.
In response to the changes, authorized WIC stores increased the availability of healthier foods and beverages and demand for these products also increased, the report reveals.
A long road ahead
Despite the progress among very young WIC participants, “obesity prevalence among young children remains too high,” Ruth Petersen, director of CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, said in a statement.
She explained, “We must persist in our efforts to support healthy eating and physical activity for this positive trend to continue.”
For example, the CDC called on parents to serve nutritious foods and model healthy eating to preschoolers by eating fruits and vegetables with them as well as make water available through out the day. It also encourages more physical activity and less screen time for young children.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also called on the US Department of Agriculture to build on this positive momentum by ensuring the scientific integrity of the WIC food package process as it undertakes the upcoming Congressionally mandated 10-year cycle revision.
In addition, RWJF recommends that Congress increase WIC funding to extend eligibility to postpartum mothers through the first two years after birth and to children through the age of 6 years to align with the school feeding program.
Beyond extending coverage, RWJF calls on Congress to modernize WIC services to create electronic benefit transfer programs in all participating states by 2020 and fully fund the WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counseling Program at its fully authorized amount of $90 million to ensure mothers have access to critical support.