July 10, 2014 – The Health Department announced today that severe obesity among New York City public school students in grades K–8 decreased 9.5%, from 6.3% in the 2006–07 school year to 5.7% in the 2010–11 school year. Among public school students in grades K–8, obesity also decreased during this period by 5.5% (from 21.9% to 20.7%), suggesting that the public response to the obesity epidemic is affecting all levels of childhood obesity. These findings were released in the journal, Preventing Chronic Disease.
“This report is promising in that it shows a decrease in the number of severely obese children in New York City, but there is still much work to be done,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett. “We will continue to look for new ways to reduce and prevent childhood obesity.”
Severe obesity is defined as a BMI at or above 120% of the 95th percentile, according to the CDC’s age- and sex-specific growth charts. While severe childhood obesity is decreasing along with or faster than obesity in New York City, a recent study reported severe childhood obesity is increasing nationally. The study found that severe obesity prevalence among children in the United States aged 2-19 years increased from 3.8% in 1999-2000 to 5.9% in 2011-2012, representing a more than 50 percentage point increase over the past 14 years.
Children with severe obesity have increased risks of disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and insulin resistance among others. Obese children are also more likely to become obese adults, meaning they are at greater risk of developing illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
Obesity and related diseases like diabetes are at epidemic proportions in New York City due to the ubiquity of unhealthy foods and the aggressive marketing of them to both adults and children. While changes are needed at the industry and retail levels, New Yorkers can take steps to address the problem.
The Health Department recommends the following:
• Both children and adults get at least one hour of physical activity a day.
• Avoid drinking calories by choosing water and low-fat milk instead of juice or high-calorie, sugar-sweetened beverages, such as sodas.
• Increase consumption of fruits and vegetables in place of higher calorie foods such as sweets and chips to prevent obesity and its negative health consequences.
In conjunction with the release of the Health Department’s manuscript in Preventing Chronic Disease, the Health Department released the latest BMI data from the NYC FITNESSGRAM Assessment for New York City public school children. Though New York City has seen progress in decreasing severe obesity among public school students, the prevalence of childhood obesity remains high in New York City. In the 2006-07 school year, 22% of public school students in grades K–8 were obese. In the 2012-13 school year, 21% of public school students in grades K–8 were obese.
In the 2011-12 school year, new self-calibrating, digital scales were introduced in 1,500 schools, providing the City with a more accurate estimate of childhood obesity among public school students. Prior to this change, schools purchased their own scales, resulting in varied measurements and estimates depending on the scales used and how height was measured. Due to these improvements, the 2011-12 and 2012-13 BMI data are not comparable to previous estimates.
City’s Response to Childhood Obesity Data
The City is taking a multifaceted approach to address childhood obesity, which includes increasing opportunities for physical activity in and out of schools, increasing access to healthy foods and reducing the consumption of unhealthy foods.
“The administration will use all tools at our disposal to fight the unacceptably high rates of obesity that affect the lives of too many of our young New Yorkers,” said Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Lilliam Barrios Paoli. “The responsibility to address childhood obesity does not only depend on our schools – it demands a multi-agency approach. Already, efforts are underway to educate New Yorkers about healthier options by bringing better foods to all neighborhoods, expanding out-of-school sports and fitness opportunities during the summer and the academic year. We will continue to work to ensure all New York City get the healthy start in life they so rightly deserve.”
“We are encouraged that the obesity rate has gone down, but we must also be mindful of the 21 percent obesity rate among K-8 students,” said Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “Fitness and wellness are top priorities for the administration and is critical for students to come to school ready to learn, and thrive both inside the classroom and beyond. We will continue to encourage our students participate in physical activity and choose our nutritious meals in schools, and we are grateful for the recommendations of the Health Department.”
The DOE’s Office of School Wellness programs increases access to quality physical education, health education, and school wellness initiatives through professional development for teachers and administrators, technical assistance, on-site support, and school-based programs to support students’ well-being. Among successful program physical activity initiatives are Move-to-Improve, a K-5 classroom based fitness program designed to increase physical activity among students in elementary school, and the CHAMPS Middle School Sports and Fitness Program, which promotes student physical activity before or after school during the critical middle school years and offers students a wide range of traditional and non-traditional sports and fitness activities.
In addition, the City is committed to making the healthy choice the easy choice for public school students. DOE, which serves 860,000 meals a day, created a healthier menu for students by eliminating butter, white bread, fried food, whole milk, soda, and high caloric snacks. Students are now served whole grain pasta instead of bleached pasta. More than 1,300 salad bars and 1,100 water jets have been installed in public schools to make healthy choices more available to students.
At public schools across the city, there are 345 registered school gardens, with approximately 300 of them containing edible plants. Sixty-seven of these schools are registered with Garden-to-Café, a program that blends school gardening and healthy school lunches through educational activities and seasonal harvest events.