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The Childhood Obesity Epidemic Is Getting Worse

There have been hints that childhood obesity is in decline or at least leveling off. Researchers at four North Carolina institutions find otherwise.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Jana Birchum/Getty Images)

America’s children have gotten a lot bigger over the last three decades. Since 1980, the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents has more than tripled; today, one-third of kids are overweight or obese. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like American kids will be slimming down any time soon: According to a new report, hints that the epidemic was subsiding may be unfounded.

Despite a number of studies that find obesity declines in specific subpopulations—notably, low-income, preschool-aged children—“[t]here is no indication of a decline in obesity prevalence in the United States in any age group among children 2–19 years of age,” Asheley Cockrell Skinner, Eliana Perrin, Joseph Skelton write in the journal Obesity. “Severe obesity remains high, especially among adolescents.”

Those conclusions are based on a new analysis of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which tracks height and weight (among many other variables) for 3,523 children and adolescents who participated in 2013 and 2014. Among those kids, one-third were overweight or obese; about one-fifth, or 6.2 percent overall, qualified as severely obese, which corresponds roughly to a body mass index of 35 of higher. (To put that in perspective, an average 12-year-old boy is about 4'11" tall. To have a BMI of 35, that boy would have to weigh about 174 pounds.)

“We aren’t doing enough different things at once, and aren’t reaching enough kids.”

And things are only getting worse. Since 1999, the fraction of overweight children has increased from 28.8 to 33.4 percent, and the fraction of severely obese children has increased from four to 6.3 percent. The problem is especially bad in older children: Severe obesity rates in children ages 12 to 19 rose from five percent in 1999 to 10 percent in 2013.

“Most notably, all classes of obesity have increased over time for adolescents of both sexes. Changes over time are similar by race, though prevalence is consistently higher among black and Hispanic children,” the researchers write.

The results suggest that efforts to combat childhood obesity are not working very well. “It’s possible obesity would be even worse without the efforts we’ve made,” Skinner writes in an email. “More likely — and this is my opinion — we aren’t doing enough different things at once, and aren’t reaching enough kids. Improvements will require changes at many levels — schools, communities, agricultural policy, health-care systems.”