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Dept of Health: Access to nutritious foods, more physical activity needed to decrease childhood obesity


Harrisburg, PA – Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine stressed the importance for children to have access to healthy foods and safe places to be physically active to help decrease the prevalence of childhood obesity in Pennsylvania.

“We know good nutrition from a healthy diet is an important factor in overall health. If children do not receive a healthy diet and physical activity, it could lead to serious health issues that impact their development and could even have long-term effects for the rest of their lives,” Dr. Levine said. “To decrease obesity among children, we must ensure that all Pennsylvanians have access to nutritious foods as we advocate for food security during Hunger Action Month. The department is committed to strengthening programs and initiatives that provide children and adults safe opportunities to be physically active and ultimately stay healthy, especially as COVID-19 remains a threat in our communities.”

Childhood obesity is defined as a person ages 2 to 19 with a Body Mass Index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2015-2016, the prevalence of obesity affected 18.5 percent or about 13.7 million children and adolescents across the country.

In Pennsylvania in 2016, 80,202 (12 percent) children aged 2 to 4 years old that received the Pennsylvania Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits had obesity. During the 2017-2018 school year, 16.8 percent of children in kindergarten through sixth grade, or 160,220 children, had obesity reported through the Growth Screening Program. Additionally, there were 19.5 percent of children in seventh through 12th grade, or 155,339 children, who had obesity reported.

Numerous studies have shown that childhood obesity is more prevalent among minority and low-income families. WIC serves low-income families and aims to ensure that children get a healthy start to life. Vouchers are included in the WIC program for residents to purchase Pennsylvania-grown fruits and vegetables at approved farm markets and farm stands across the state.

Programs like WIC help ensure Pennsylvanians are eating a healthy diet, which is essential to decreasing childhood obesity. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, individuals should be eating a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean protein foods and low-fat and fat-free dairy products, while limiting foods and beverages with added sugars, solid fats, or sodium.

In addition to eating a healthy diet, it is essential that children and adolescents are getting enough physical activity. Children 6 years of age or older should be getting at least an hour of physical activity a day, according to the CDC, with part of that time being aerobic activity such as walking, running, swimming or other activities. To find a local and safe walking route nearest you, learn more about the Department of Health’s WalkWorks program.

The department’s Obesity Prevention and Wellness Program collaborates with state and community-based partners to create healthier environments in schools, early childhood education facilities, worksites, hospitals and communities to support and increase good nutrition and physical activity. The department remains committed to supporting these sectors to provide healthy nutrition and offer safe physical activity especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pennsylvanians who need help feeding themselves or their family can find and contact their local food bank or pantry through Feeding Pennsylvania and Hunger-Free Pennsylvania. 

For more information about food assistance resources for people around Pennsylvania impacted by COVID-19 and the accompanying economic insecurity, visit the Department of Agriculture’s food security guide.

More information on childhood obesity can be found on the Department of Health’s website at health.pa.gov or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.