NUTRITION
January 22, 2013

Small Changes, Big Difference

A few changes to New York State’s WIC program have had a big effect on kids' weight and increased healthy behaviors like watching less TV.

Before you bristle at the government's efforts to get us to eat better, consider the findings of a massive study charting the effects of changes to a food voucher program. The research looked at the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, before and after significant changes were made to improve the health of its offerings. It found the changes helped kids avoid becoming overweight or obese.

In 2009, all states made changes to the foods covered under WIC, but New York was the first to roll out the new food vouchers, which included fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat rather than whole milk, and low-fat cheese and tofu options. The WIC program also began promoting healthy living — turning off the TV, getting active in simple ways, eating less sugar, and being a role model for one’s child.

New York was the first state to implement the new WIC food package and is the first to report that changing the foods provided to children under the program helped to improve their eating behavior and achieve healthier weights.

Using 3.5 million WIC records, the researchers compared obesity rates for children before and after these changes took effect in 2009. They found modest but reliable differences in obesity rates. Obesity in one year-olds declined by 6%, from 15.1 to 14.2%. In kids aged two to four, it declined by 3% — from 14.6 to 14.2%.

"The new WIC food package was designed to promote healthier eating choices for children, and we are excited by results that show it is helping to reduce pediatric obesity," said State Health Commissioner Nirav R. Shah, MD, MPH, in a news release. "New York was the first state to implement the new WIC food package and is the first to report that changing the foods provided to children under the program helped to improve their eating behavior and achieve healthier weights. Changing WIC foods does change what children eat."

Among the other findings in the study, low- and non-fat milk consumption was up by 4.5% in children aged two to four. Fruit, vegetable, and whole grain consumption were up in kids from one to four years old. And in the healthy behavior category, less than two hours per day of TV-watching was up by 2.5% in two to four-year olds – and in kids under age two, the percentage of those watching no TV at all was up by 33%. Breastfeeding, which is associated with many health benefits for the child, rose 7%, from 72% to 77%.

The study offers proof that public health programs can make a difference. In fact, since the 2009 changes, “an estimated 2,300 more New York children were normal weight, not overweight or obese," said author Mary Ann Chiasson. To learn more about WIC and its guidelines and offerings, please visit the USDA’s WIC website.

The study was carried out by a team at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and published in the journal Obesity.

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