02/27/2014 01:32 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

Obesity Decreases in Early Childhood but Remains National Threat

By Secretary Dan Glickman and Secretary Ann M. Veneman, co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially confirmed what many of us have hoped: that we are beginning to make some inroads in the fight against our nation's obesity epidemic. According to the latest data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the prevalence of obesity in 2- to 5-year-olds dropped by 43 percent over the last 10 years. This number should be celebrated for its significance both from a statistical standpoint and a symbolic one; however, we should not rest on our laurels since no other age groups showed notable decreases in the prevalence of this costly disease.

Turning the tide in this young, vulnerable population is an important leading indicator for our ability to reduce obesity in older age groups. A burgeoning body of research is pointing to the importance of the first few years of life for influencing long-term health, including an individual's weight as an adult. For example, a study published last month in The New England Journal of Medicine demonstrated that overweight 5-year-olds were four times as likely as normal-weight children to become obese as 5- to 14-year olds. With every passing year, the likelihood that a child's weight status would change decreased: By age 11, most of those who were overweight or obese stayed overweight or obese, and most of those who were normal weight stayed at a normal weight. In essence, by the time an overweight or obese child has entered school, they may be set on a path to a lifetime of painful and costly health problems, such as diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease. That makes it all the more important that we address obesity early in life and ensure that the improvements seen in 2- to 5-year-olds also extend to school-aged children.

Praise for recent progress against obesity in early childhood cannot be attributed to a single source, which is fitting giving the multifactorial causes of this epidemic. Efforts to promote healthy eating and active living are notable for their broad, cross-sector (and bipartisan) participation and the variety of strategies launched in disparate settings. At the federal government level, the First Lady's Let's Move! initiative has worked in settings ranging from schools to child care settings to the doctor's office, among others. USDA updated nutrition guidelines for foods served in schools for the first time in 15 years and today FDA has proposed new updates for nutrition labels. State and local governments are taking action as well; for example, Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City helped his citizens lose one million pounds, through steps such as revamping city infrastructure to encourage active transport. The private sector has also made strides: Food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants are working to increase offerings of healthy foods and an increasing number of employers are offering workplace wellness programs to help employees improve their health. Growers are reconnecting consumers to local food through initiatives such as community farmers markets and farm to school programs. Philanthropies and community organizations have also invested heavily in healthy eating and active living programs at a local and national level. For example, in September 2012, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation first reported declining childhood obesity rates in a number of cities and states where it has invested some of the $500 million it committed to fighting childhood obesity.

At the Bipartisan Policy Center, we launched our Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative with precisely this sort of cross-sector collaboration in mind. As former Secretaries of Agriculture, we are intimately familiar with the challenges associated with healthy eating and active living. Our 2012 report Lots to Lose: How America's Health and Obesity Crisis Threatens Our Economic Future outlined 26 bipartisan recommendations to combat obesity and related chronic disease in families, schools, workplaces, communities and our nation's food and farm policy. We recognized the special needs of young children and recommended several steps to address this particularly vulnerable population, including creating specific federal dietary guidelines for ages 0 to 2 and federal physical activity guidelines for ages 0 to 5. We are gratified to learn that the 2014 Farm Bill directs the 2020 Dietary Guidelines to include guidance for pregnant women and children under two.

While we must celebrate this victory and applaud those who contributed, we cannot interpret this as a sign that our work is done. As the same CDC data demonstrate, obesity continues to be a serious problem for much of our nation. Today, over two-thirds of American adults and over one-third of children ages 5 to 19 are obese or overweight; children age 2 to 5 were the only age group to show significant improvement in the last decade and the obesity prevalence actually increased in women over 60. Republicans and Democrats can agree that this is a problem not only for our quality of life, but also for our national debt, our economic competitiveness, and our national security. We must continue our efforts to promote healthy eating and active living among all Americans, and remember that we all have a role to play. The epidemic did not appear overnight and it will not disappear overnight. We need continued collaboration across sectors to enable Americans to eat healthy and live actively.

Dan Glickman served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1995 until 2001 and as Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association from 2004-2010. He currently serves as a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Ann M. Veneman served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 2001 until 2005 and Executive Director of UNICEF from 2005 to 2010. Together they co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center's Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative with former Secretaries of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and Mike Leavitt.