COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina has bucked the national trend of improvement on childhood obesity rates. In fact, the state’s increase in childhood obesity would have rated worst in the country if it had been included in a highly publicized national study released earlier this month.
South Carolina was omitted from the study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because of a missed email connection two years ago, but the South Carolina numbers are available.
In four years, the percent of obese children ages 2-4 in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant and Children in the state rose from 13.3 to 15.6. The WIC program pays for the food, and nutrition information programs, for children and pregnant women in low income families.
Seven of the 40 states or territories in the WIC study had higher overall obesity rates in the final year than South Carolina’s 15.6, but no other state in the study saw its obesity rates rise by more than a percent point during the four years.
The poor South Carolina showing didn’t shock Russ Pate, a University of South Carolina public health researcher who has been a national leader in the effort to reverse the trend. After more than a decade on the front lines of the battle, however, Pate believes the tide is primed to turn.
“This issue has received an enormous amount of attention over the last decade,” Pate said. “But for a long time, there was more smoke than fire.”
The smoke involved studying the problem, gaining a better understanding of it and convincing decision-makers of the need to change. The fire is implementing that change. Pate compared the anti-obesity effort to the long public health battle against tobacco use.
“We’ve talked a long time,” he said. “That’s kind of the way public health works. In the last couple of years, this issue has begun to transition from talk to action.”
The YMCA and the state Department of Social Services in the past two years have released new guidelines on diet and physical activity programs in after-school and child-care settings, Pate said.
Those are huge advances from a decade ago when Pate began studying the physical activity of youngsters in child care centers. “A very common reaction then was, ‘You’re concerned about the physical activity among 4-year-olds?’” Pate said. “They thought they were always moving around. But when we put accelerometers (which measure movement) on them, they aren’t nearly as active as you think.”
Pate’s latest project involves studying the physical activity of children in child care centers and training workers on the most productive ways to increase that activity.
The CDC study released in early August drew a lot of attention because it found childhood obesity rates were decreasing in 19 states and rising in only three. The study didn’t include data from 10 states.
South Carolina was omitted because a CDC request for data in 2011 went to an inactive email account at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, according to agency spokesman Mark Plowden. Because South Carolina didn’t send in timely data that year, it wasn’t included in the study of four-year trends.
The percent of obese children ages 2-4 years in the WIC in South Carolina has grown from 13.3 percent in fiscal year 2009 to 14.1 percent in 2010, 14.7 in 2011 and 15.6 in 2012, Plowden said.
DHEC, which administers the WIC program in the state, plans to do its part to reverse the trend by offering more classes on childhood nutrition. Currently, those classes are offered at 21 sites, but the agency hopes to double that number by the end of 2014, Plowden said.
DHEC director Catherine Templeton has taken a special interest in childhood obesity, staging quarterly meetings of the major players in the battle to discuss what works and what doesn’t. The next meeting is Sept. 23.
In the national study, obesity rates fell by more than 1 percentage point in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey, South Dakota and the U.S. Virgin Islands from 2008 to 2011, and by smaller amounts in 13 other states. In 21 states and territories, there was no statistically significant change, and rates went up slightly in three other states – Colorado (from 9.4 to 10.0), Pennsylvania (11.5-12.2) and Tennessee (13.5-14.2).
Overall, about 12.5 percent of preschoolers in the U.S. are considered obese, and these children are five times more likely to be obese as adults, according to the CDC.
Childhood obesity in SC
The percent of obese children ages 2-4 in the Women, Infant and Children program for low-income families in South Carolina, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control.