Early childhood obesity rates have declined dramatically in the past decade, according to an analysis published last week in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention led the research, which showed a 43 percent drop in obesity in children ages 2 to 5.

Although this age group makes up a small fraction of the population, the news may bode well for the future. A separate study released in January by Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health reported that whether a child will become obese is largely established by kindergarten. Overweight 5-year-olds were found to be four times as likely to become obese as “normal-weight” children – those whose body mass index falls below the 85th percentile, according to CDC growth charts – by the eighth grade. 

So what’s behind the decline? Major efforts to reduce childhood obesity rates have come from all corners of the United States – from first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to the school cafeteria whistle-stop tours of chef Jamie Oliver. But it is hard to say whether the impact of such programs already is being seen.

The CDC also has reported a decrease in childhood carbohydrate consumption. The food group includes sugars, a substance widely considered to inflate calorie intake in kids’ diets. But the declines are considered too small to make a significant difference in overall obesity rates. 

The Center for Investigative Reporting explored the issue of sugar intake regulation last fall as part of our investigation into childhood nutrition, Recipe for Disaster. Although federally mandated caps exist for fat and salt in school lunches, there are no such limits placed on sugar, a point that has pitted activists against lobbyists. A 2012 CDC study found that American boys eat an average of more than 22 teaspoons of added sugars a day, and girls consume more than 17 teaspoons daily.

We also took nutritional information from school lunch menus across California and built an animated data app geared toward kids, Hairnet Hero, which you can play here. Go inside the lunchroom with Lula, the cafeteria’s head chef, to build a lunch and examine the nutritional makeup of the offerings. Experiment with balancing tasty treats with healthier options to find a lunchtime solution that both kids and Lula will love.

Want to play the game on your mobile device? Check out Hairnet Hero in the iTunes App Store and the Google Play store.

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Marie McIntosh is a news engagement specialist at The Center for Investigative Reporting, focusing on Junior Watchdogs, CIR's hub for information for kids. Marie works closely with the editorial team to find stories that affect kids, parents and teachers. Those stories cover nutrition, safety, education and more. Marie manages the production of video games and activity books and develops resources that engage kids and their families. She also supports CIR's events. Previously, she was the editorial assistant and social media manager for The Bay Citizen, which merged with CIR in 2012. Before that, Marie worked in textbook publishing in Boston.