Findings from a recent study revealed that the increase in rates of childhood obesity in the United States, which began about 30 years ago, continues unabated, with the biggest increases seen in severe obesity. The study, “Prevalence of Obesity and Severe Obesity in US Children, 1999-2014,” was published in the journal Obesity.
With the goal of providing the most updated data on the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 in the U.S., Asheley Skinner, PhD, associate professor at Duke Clinical Research Institute, and colleagues at Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, conducted an analysis of data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES, 1999–2014).
NHANES is a stratified, multistage, probability sample of the non-institutionalized U.S. population. Weight status was defined using measured height and weight, with standard definitions.
The team of researchers found that for 2013-2014, 33.4 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 19 were overweight. Of these, 17.4 percent had class 1 obesity, including 6.3 percent with class 2 (body mass index, or BMI, of 35 or greater) and 2.4 percent with class 3 (BMI greater than 40). These rates were not statistically different from those previously reported for the years 2011-2012. Across all categories of obesity there was a statistically significant increase that continued from 1999 through 2014.
“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 Skinner, the study’s lead author, in a news release. “This is particularly true with severe obesity, which remains high, especially among adolescents.”
“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.”
According to Dr. Sarah Armstrong, M.D., director of the Duke Healthy Lifestyles Program, the population-wide results coincide with what she observes in the clinic. Although families are more aware of the impact of obesity on children’s health, reversing the problem is a challenge.
“Certainly progress has been made in addressing the issue in our country,” Armstrong said. “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.”
“We don’t want the findings to cause people to become frustrated and disheartened,” Skinner concluded. “This is really a population health problem that will require changes across the board — food policy, access to healthcare, school curriculums that include physical education, community and local resources in parks and sidewalks. A lot of things put together can work.”