Missouri is one of 19 states and U.S. territories where obesity among low-income preschoolers declined from 2008-11, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"Any amount of decrease is significant when you're looking at obesity," said Melinda Ridenhour, director of nutrition services at the Cole County Health Department.
"This is a reflection of many years of work," Ridenhour said of the decline.
As director of nutrition services, Ridenhour oversees the Health Department's Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program which is a "supplemental nutrition program that provides services to pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children up to their fifth birthday based on nutritional risk and income eligibility."
The goal of the program "is to help keep pregnant and breastfeeding women, new moms, and kids under age 5 healthy."
"We have dietitians on staff who work with WIC families," Ridenhour said. "They teach them how to cook and how to make the little changes."
She said she thinks childhood obesity among low-income preschoolers has declined in Missouri because of changes to WIC's food package and an increase in women breastfeeding.
"In 2009, the food package added more fruits and vegetables and added more whole grains," Ridenhour said. "It also reduced the juice being provided."
Dr. Sarah Gordon, a Jefferson City Medical Group pediatrician who works on various health initiatives with the Health Department, said she thinks that sugary beverages are a huge nutritional and health concern in today's culture.
"In childhood, milk is necessary for the calcium for growing kids' skeletons, for their bone health," Gordon said. "But, water is really the beverage of choice outside of the need of calcium in milk.
"In my opinion, sugary beverages have absolutely no place in our diet, and that includes fruit juices."
Ridenhour said breastfeeding is another factor that she believes has reduced Missouri's obesity rate in low-income preschoolers.
"It's proven that when children are breastfed, it's linked to reduced obesity," Ridenhour said.
She also said breastfed children are introduced to solid foods much later.
"Also mothers who breastfeed are more receptive with making healthy choices not only while pregnant, but after pregnancy," Ridenhour said.
She said the Health Department works with both Jefferson City hospitals - Capital Region Medical Center and St. Mary's Health Center - with breastfeeding education and intervention for new or expectant mothers.
While Gordon is pleased with the reduced obesity rates among low-income preschoolers, she said much work still needs to be done.
"We're seeing problems in young children and teenagers that we used to only see in middle age," Gordon said.
To prevent obesity among her pediatric patients, Gordon encourages patients to reduce their screen time on computers, games and televisions to an hour or less per day. She also encourages kids to exercise at least an hour a day; to not drink sugary beverages; to eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day; and to minimize consumption of high-processed, high-calorie and low-nutrient foods.
"This report from the CDC is encouraging, but I think what it does for me is really give me hope that interventions are working and can work, but it doesn't mean that we can stop our efforts and be any less vigilant as families, as physicians, as a country," Gordon said. "This is really just the first bit of encouraging news for a long time, but it's really just a baby step."
For more information about the CDC study, visit www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/childhoodobesity.