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Cal Poly Study Finds Preschool Obesity Rates in SLO County Reflect National Trends

April 13, 2015

The percentage of preschool-aged children who are overweight or obese appears to be leveling off in San Luis Obispo County, according to a Cal Poly study, though the rate is still significant at more than 33%, or one in three children. These results reflect a nationwide trend that suggests childhood obesity rates have stopped rising.

Faculty and students in Cal Poly's Kinesiology Department partnered with the county Health Department, Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, and 29 preschools countywide to collect data. Their analysis found differences in obesity rates related to geography, household income, type of school, ethnicity, and language spoken at home.

 “We found that children in the South County had the highest overweight and obesity rate. They were 1.5 times more likely to be overweight or obese than children in the North County,” said Kris Jankovitz, kinesiology professor and faculty advisor for the project.

Though this study has been done periodically since 2006, this was the first time researchers collected income data. "Most of our findings were similar to other studies. Lower income children are more likely to be obese," said Trevor Curry, one of the graduate students running the study. Possible explanations for these differences include lack of access to healthy food and lack of education about how to eat a healthy diet.

An apparent disparity in the overweight and obesity rate based on type of school may actually be related to household income.  “Children attending Head Start preschools were 2.8 times more likely to be overweight or obese than children attending private preschools,” said Victoria Howarth, the second graduate student leading the study. “But when we controlled for income, low income kids in private preschools were significantly more likely to be obese than kids from higher income homes.”  

Hispanic children were significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than non-Hispanic White children, and those who spoke Spanish at home were at greater risk than those who spoke English at home.

In November, Curry and Howarth presented their findings to a countywide network of community groups focused on health. "It's great that students can help us understand the health of our community. When students collect data, make sense of it, and report it, the community can make changes," Jankovitz said. Since 2006 the Kinesiology Department has partnered with the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department to assess the weight status of more than 1,400 preschool children.

Changes being considered include a follow-up study to investigate what types of interventions are most effective, for example, implementing new snack policies or educating parents.

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