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The number of low-income children in Sonoma County who are obese is declining, a drop that may signal a turning point in one of the nation's most troublesome health epidemics.

A new report released Tuesday showed that 15.4 percent of 2- to 4-year-old children in Sonoma County were obese, the lowest level in more than a decade.

The report tracked obesity among low-income children in Sonoma County from 2001 to 2010, the most recent data available. It found that obesity peaked in the three-year period ending in 2007 and has been declining ever since, based on annual measurements averaged over three-year periods.

The trend mirrors a report released Tuesday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which showed the first evidence of a national decline in childhood obesity in years. In 18 states, there were at least slight drops in obesity among low-income preschoolers, health officials said Tuesday.

Local health experts say the county and national findings may signal the war on obesity is finally yielding results.

"It's exciting for all of us. I do think we're starting to see the needle move," said Jeannie Dulberg, community benefit manager for Kaiser Permanente's Marin/Sonoma area.

Health care organizations, like Kaiser, and public health agencies have poured resources into teaching children the importance of healthy eating and regular exercise, attempting to head off an array of health problems that result from obesity.

In Sonoma County, Kaiser has funded an initiative called Healthy Eating and Active Living, or HEAL, that encourages people to eat better and be more physically active as part of daily life.

Several years ago, the Roseland area in southwest Santa Rosa was identified as a "HEAL zone," receiving two grants totalling $2.5 million over six years. The grants end next year.

Dulberg said that preliminary data from these grants also point to a decrease in body mass index, or BMI, in the zone. That data has not been finalized and cannot yet be released, she said.

"We're seeing signs that increases in exercise and increases in healthier foods available to students is definitely having an effect," she said.

Nationally, after decades on the rise, childhood obesity rates recently have essentially been flat. A few places — Philadelphia, New York City and Mississippi — reported improvements in the last couple of years. But the CDC report shows signs of wider-ranging progress.

"Now, for the first time, we're seeing a significant decrease in childhood obesity" nationally, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC director.

But rates are still too high, he added. One in 8 preschoolers is obese in the United States, and it's even more common in black and Hispanic kids.

"It's not like we're out of the woods," he said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Obesity continues to be one of the nation's leading public health problems — health officials call it a long-standing epidemic. A third of U.S. children and teens and more than two-thirds of adults are obese or overweight.

Some hope the report marks a turning point.

"I really do think this is a pivotal moment," said Sam Kass, executive director of a White House initiative to reduce childhood obesity.

Preschoolers who are overweight or obese are five times more likely than other children to be heavy as adults, which means greater risks of high cholesterol, high blood sugar, asthma and even mental health problems.

Tuesday's study used height and weight measurements from nearly 12 million low-income children in 40 states. The data was collected from 2008 through 2011.

Most of the children ages 2 to 4 were enrolled in the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides food vouchers and other services.

The Sonoma County data tracked changes between 2001 and 2010. Among children ages 2 to 4, the rate of obese or overweight kids peaked in the three-year period between 2005 and 2007 and has been declining, reaching 31.2 percent during the three-year period ending in 2010.

Obesity grew among older kids, ages 5 to 19, in the most recent period. But researchers also saw declines in the number of older children who were overweight during the same period.

Overall, 43.2 percent of children ages 5 to 11 were either overweight or obese in the most recent period. The report found 44.7 percent of kids 12 to 19 were overweight or obese.

Kelly Elder, a manager with the county Division of Health Policy Planning and Evaluation, pointed to other factors that

may be helping to reduce the number of kids who are overweight or obese. These include local participation in the international Safe Routes for Schools program, which promotes walking or bike riding to schools, and the Healthy Students Initiative, which encourages physical activity and healthy eating in schools and after-school programs.

County officials said increasing rates of mothers breast-feeding could also be a contributing factor. Experts say that breast-feeding rates have been increasing, and kids raised on mother's milk tend to have lower obesity rates.

The biggest declines across the country were in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota. Each saw their obesity numbers fall at least 1 percentage point.

Other states showing improvement: California, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Washington. A substantial decline was also seen in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"These signs of progress tell a clear story: We can reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. It isn't some kind of unstoppable force," said Dr. James S. Marks, senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropy that supports programs to tackle obesity.

Dulberg of Kaiser Permanente said some are still skeptical that programs like HEAL in Santa Rosa can bring about change in people's habits, whether it's getting them to eat healthier or be more active.

But she compared the battle against obesity to the battle against smoking.

"It took a long time to move the needle on that," she said. "Now, people aren't smoking in restaurants or public places but that didn't happen overnight."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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