W.I.C. changes cut obesity risk among 4-year-olds

(Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr)

Sweeping changes designed to make a major federal food assistance program more nutritious reduced obesity risk for four-year-olds in the program since birth, research shows.

Researchers conducted the study in Los Angeles County, where over half of all children younger than age five are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, called WIC.

WIC is a federal nutrition assistance program for pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women, as well as infants and children under the age of five who live in low-income households.

“Our study shows that improving nutrition quality made a measurable impact in lowering obesity risk for children receiving the new food package compared to those receiving the old,” says lead author Pia Chaparro, assistant professor of nutrition at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

“Our results suggest that changes in children’s diet early in life could have a positive effect on their growth and reduce obesity risk, which could be informative for policymakers considering further improvements to the WIC program.”

To make food packages healthier, WIC added fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and reduced the amount of juice, milk, and cheese. It also cut fat levels allowed in milk and calibrated infant formula amounts based on infants’ age and needs.

Researchers examined health and population data from more than 180,000 children from 2003-2016. They looked at data from four groups of children: those receiving a full-dose (participating in WIC continuously from birth to age 4) of the new food package; those receiving a full-dose of the old food package; those receiving a late-dose (joining WIC at age two and participating until age four) of the new food package; and those receiving a late-dose of the old food package.

Children receiving a full dose of the new food package had healthier growth trajectories and lower obesity risk at age 4 than children receiving a full dose of the old food package. Obesity risk was 12 percent lower for boys and 10 percent lower for girls compared to 4-year-olds who received the full dose of the old food package.

When researchers examined growth trajectories between the two groups, they noticed the sharpest differences began to develop at six months of age, suggesting that a more nutritious diet set a course for healthier growth early in life.

“The beneficial effect of being exposed to the new food package, compared to the old one, was much stronger during the six months to one-year age interval, and this difference between the two groups during this age interval was large enough to set children in the new food package group on a healthier growth trajectory through age four,” Chaparro says.

For children who joined the WIC program later at age 2, researchers found an 11 percent lower obesity risk for boys receiving the new food package but no reduced risk for girls. It is not clear whether the disparity in risk reduction was due to biological or sociocultural differences, Chaparro says.

The American Heart Association funded the study.

Source: Tulane University