Childhood Obesity Rates

September 20, 2019

A few months ago, I found myself in front of a patient who was four years old and weighed 140 pounds. I was dumbfounded. “What happened? How did we end up in this situation?” I wondered. More than sixty years ago, childhood obesity in the US had been unheard of. However, it has become increasingly prevalent over the past three decades. Since the 1976-1980 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), pediatric obesity rates have tripled (1,2).

In the most recent NHANES data, 18.5% of children ages 2 to 19 and 39.6% of adults had obesity in 2015-2016. The proportion of obese 2 to 5 year-olds increased from 5% to 13.9%, the 6% to 11-year-olds from 6.5% to 18.4%, and the 12 to 19 year-olds from 5% to 20.6%. Data on the different subgroups showed obesity rates to be higher among the Latino children (25.8%) and Black children (22%) compared to White children (14.1%) and Asian children (11%). With regards to gender, boys are more likely to have obesity than girls (19.1% vs 17.8%). And as shown above, the prevalence of obesity increases with age(1,2).

The socioeconomic status is another contributory factor affecting obesity. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) analyzed the 2011-2014 NHANES data by household income (£130%, >130% to £350%, and >350% of the poverty level) as well as head of household education level (high school graduate or less, some college, and college graduate). It found obesity to be lower in the highest income group (10.9%) than in the other groups (19.9% and 18.9%) and also lower in the highest education group (9.6%) than in the other groups (18.3% and 21.6%)(3,4,5,6).

Children who have obesity are at greater risk for certain diseases like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure(7,8,9). Research also shows that children with obesity perform worse in school and have higher risk of bullying and depression(10). Those who are overweight or obese are more likely to be obese adults as well(11).

Our fight against the obesity epidemic starts at addressing childhood obesity. Afterall, if current trends continue, more than half of today’s children will have obesity by age 35 (12).It is encouraging to see some of the benefits of programs and policies aimed at this problem at the individual, community, and state levels(13). An intensive multi-sector program as shown in Texas can be successful at weight reduction among children in low-income communities(14,15). Another project (Healthy Communities Study) demonstrated that children living in localities that did more to encourage physical activity and healthy nutrition had lower body mass index and waist circumference measures(16). Likewise, the rates of obesity and severe obesity have decreased (from 15.9% in 2010 to 14.5% in 2014) among the 2 to 4 year-olds enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). This decrease was seen in 31 states and three U.S territories including some communities(17,18,19).

The obesity rates and the associated numbers can be quite daunting. However, we can all contribute and help prevent and treat childhood obesity. We can eradicate this disease. We should. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and to the future generations yet to come.


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