‘Snapshot’ depicts rising obesity among U.S. kids

A new study shows that 33.4 percent of children between the ages of 2 through 19 were overweight—and among those, 17.4 percent had obesity. "This is really a population health problem that will require changes across the board," says Asheley Skinner. (Credit: iStockphoto)

The alarming increase in obesity rates in children in the United States—which began nearly three decades ago—continues unabated, with the biggest increases in severe obesity, experts warn.

“Despite some other recent reports, we found no indication of a decline in obesity prevalence in the United States in any group of children aged 2 through 19,” says lead author Asheley Skinner, associate professor at Duke University. “This is particularly true with severe obesity, which remains high, especially among adolescents.”

For a new study, researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey, a large, ongoing compilation of health information that has spanned decades.

The findings show that for 2013-2014, 33.4 percent of children between the ages of 2 through 19 were overweight. Among those, 17.4 percent were obese, which includes a range from the lower end of the designation criteria to the higher end.

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These rates were not statistically different than those from the previous reporting period of 2011-2012. Across all categories of obesity, a clear, statistically significant increase continued from 1999 through 2014. “Most disheartening is the increase in severe obesity,” Skinner says.

The prevalence of severe obesity—correlated to an adult body mass index of 35 or higher—accounted for the sharpest rise from the previous reporting period. Among all overweight youngsters in the 2012-14 reporting period, 6.3 percent had a BMI of at least 35, which was defined as class II obesity. Another 2.4 percent of those had severe obesity, defined as class III, which was consistent with an adult BMI of 40 or more.

For the previous reporting period, 5.9 percent of youngsters had class II obesity, and 2.1 percent of those were at class III levels.

“An estimated 4.5 million children and adolescents have severe obesity and they will require new and intensive efforts to steer them toward a healthier course,” Skinner says. “Studies have repeatedly shown that obesity in childhood is associated with worse health and shortened lifespans as adults.”

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The population-wide findings in the study are consistent with what doctors see in clinical practice, says Sarah Armstrong, a pediatrician and director of the Duke Healthy Lifestyles Program, who was not involved in the study. While families are more attuned to the health effects of obesity, reversing the problem is as difficult one-on-one as it is nationally.

“Certainly progress has been made in addressing the issue in our country. But this study highlights that we may need to be more disruptive in our thinking about how we change the environment around children if we really want to see that statistic move on a national scale.”

Researchers say the study, published in the journal Obesity, has limitations, relying on two-year data that provides a snapshot in time across a wide population. But the NHANES database is a broader source than those used in studies that found declines in obesity rates among smaller or segmented populations.

“We don’t want the findings to cause people to become frustrated and disheartened,” Skinner says. “This is really a population health problem that will require changes across the board—food policy, access to health care, school curriculums that include physical education, community and local resources in parks and sidewalks. A lot of things put together can work.”

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University are coauthors of the study.

Source: Duke University