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CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. obesity epidemic, which afflicts all age groups, has stabilized in the past five years among preschool-age children at about one in seven children, government researchers said on Thursday.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 14.6 percent of 2- to 4-year-old children were obese in 2008, about the same as in 2003 and compared to a 12.4 percent obesity rate in 1998.
"These new data provide some encouragement but remind us of two things -- one, too many young children are obese, and two, we must not become complacent in our efforts to reduce obesity among young children," said Dr. William Dietz, director of the CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity.
Childhood obesity has been shown to increase the risks of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life, and it can often lead to adult obesity.
About one-third of U.S. adults over age 20 are obese and another one-third are considered overweight. Adult obesity rates have increased dramatically over the past two decades.
Obesity is associated with more than 100,000 U.S. deaths each year.
The CDC report, published in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, gave some credit for the stable rates among preschoolers to programs that encouraged breast-feeding, consumption of low-fat or fat-free milk by children, and reduced television viewing.
The CDC surveyed some 2 million children, and defined obesity as having a body mass index -- a measure of height and weight -- that ranked at or above the 95th percentile on growth charts.
American Indians and Alaska Natives were the only racial or ethnic group where the proportion of obese children rose between 2003 to 2008 -- rising about one-half percent per year in each group to 21.2 percent.
Hispanic preschoolers had the next-highest obesity rate in 2008 at 18.5 percent, with 12.6 percent of young white children and 11.8 percent of black children considered obese.
The author of the study, CDC epidemiologist Dr. Andrea Sharma, said reducing obesity rates required "policy changes that promote physical activity and good nutrition."
She urged "greater consumption of water and fruits and vegetables and lower consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and foods high in fats or added sugars."
Reporting by Andrew Stern; editing by Julie Steenhuysen