Obesity rates in children in the United States—which began their ascent nearly three decades ago—continue to rise unchecked, with the largest increases in severe obesity, a new study warns.
“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,” said lead author Asheley Skinner, associate professor at Duke University. “This is particularly true with severe obesity, which remains high, especially among adolescents.”
For the new study, researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES), a large, ongoing compilation of health information spanning decades. They found that for 2013-2014, more than 33 percent of children between the ages of 2 through 19 were overweight. Among those, 17 percent were obese. Across all categories of obesity, a steady increase continued from 1999 through 2014.
“Most disheartening is the increase in severe obesity,” Skinner said.
Severe obesity (correlated to an adult body mass index of 35 or higher) accounted for the sharpest rise. Among all overweight youngsters in the 2012-14 reporting period, 6.3 percent had a BMI of at least 35. Another 2.4 percent of those had severe obesity, consistent with an adult BMI of 40 or more.
“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 said. “Studies have repeatedly shown that obesity in childhood is associated with worse health and shortened lifespans as adults.”
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Though families are more attuned to the health effects of obesity, the problem affects adults as well, and reversing it has proved to be difficult, both nationally and in one-on-one settings.
“We don’t want the findings to cause people to become frustrated and disheartened,” Skinner said. “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.”