Finally, some good news about public health, nutrition and wellness.

And not one story mentioned meat as something to be avoided.

According to a comprehensive report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of obesity among low-income preschoolers declined—albeit slightly—in 19 states and U.S. territories between 2008 and 2011.

Objectively, that may not seem all that monumental, but since the obesity rates have been rising for decades, even minimal progress in the other direction is welcome.

According to this week’s CDC Morbidity and Mortality Report (talk about a depressing masthead!), Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey, South Dakota and the U.S. Virgin Islands all reported a decline of at least one percentage point in the obesity rate among children between ages 2 and 4 who participate in federally funded maternal and child nutrition programs. Equally encouraging, obesity rates remained stable in 20 states and Puerto Rico; they increased, but only slightly, in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

“The tide has begun to turn for some kids in some states,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden in a prepared statement. “While the changes are small, for the first time in a generation they are going in the right direction”

That reversal is important for two well-documented reasons. First, the chronic diseases that typically accompany long-term obesity—hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular complications—account for a huge share of national health care costs. CDC estimates place the cost of treating and managing those conditions at 75% of all U.S. health care costs. That’s a staggering annual total of almost $2 trillion dollars.

Second, research has shown conclusively that obesity in childhood practically guarantees a lifelong struggle with weight management. And as Frieden noted, “Obesity in early childhood increases the risk of serious health problems for life.”

Thus, even a slight decrease in the frightening statistics showing that one in eight preschoolers are obese or overweight represents a positive development that is highly impactful.

Searching for answers

The big question, of course, is why? Why have obesity stats at least begun to trend downward?

CDC officials credited three factors, two being obvious, and a third that’s less well-known:

  1. Healthier foods nutrition programs, such as USDA’s National School Lunch Program
  2. Greater participation in youth health and physical fitness programs
  3. An increase in breastfeeding

I wasn’t aware of that last factor until recently, but in researching both the statistics and the factors affecting obesity, one grim statistic emerged: About 10% of infants and toddlers under the age of two are overweight or obese.

How can that be? It can’t be blamed on any of the usual culprits, such as lack of exercise, video games or, as animal activists insist, eating too much red meat. As has been noted in this space and elsewhere, the cause is pretty straightforward: Consumption of the same refined starches and simple sugars that cause weight problems for adolescents and adults.

Not beef. Not pork. Not any animal foods, for that matter.

For children, the cause of obesity can be pinpointed: For kids, it’s infant formulas, baby foods and snack items, such as chips and cookies; for adults, it’s fast food and the myriad of processed and packaged food products.

You doubt it? Then here’s a simple test. Next time you’re at the grocery store, try to find a breakfast cereal that doesn’t have sugar, corn syrup or some other refined sweetener as one of the first two ingredients listed on package. Even the “healthy,” whole-grain brands so righteously promoted in the manufacturer’s better-for-you advertising are loaded with the simple carbohydrates that trigger a physiological overreaction, the end result of which is two ugly words: fat storage.

Going, forward, CDC recommended some sensible—if not necessarily high-priority—measures to reduce obesity rates: Keeping schools gyms, playgrounds and athletic fields open during non-school hours and expanding access to healthier, affordable foods and beverages.

That second item is the key. Without access to better food choices, there’s no way to sustain even the minimal momentum that has now been established in combatting obesity.

Implementing such a change will require the political equivalent of moving heaven and earth—unfortunately, without the lever long enough and the fulcrum on which to place it with which Archimedes claimed he could get it done.

Nevertheless, it’s gratifying to read about progress in public health, including comments from across the political spectrum, and for once, nobody’s bashing meat-eating or the producers responsible for providing that privilege.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.