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Kids Not Getting Heavier—Now Help Them Get Lighter

Childhood and teen obesity has leveled out, according to statistics from 2006. But it's not time to celebrate yet—there is work to be done to reverse the trend and help kids become healthier. A new study reports that overweight and obesity rates in kids have not changed since 1999, giving us reason for both optimism and concern.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, included data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which has been conducted in multiple stages by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since the 1960s. The researchers used health information collected from 2003 to 2006 for 8,165 children and adolescents ages 2 to 19. Body mass index (BMI) was calculated for each child and placed on the percentile graphs for boys and girls established in 2000 by the CDC.

What researchers found when the children weighed in
The surveys found:

  • 11.3% of children and adolescents had an extremely high BMI, falling at or above the 97th percentile for their age.
  • 16.3% were obese, with BMI at or above the 95th percentile.
  • 31.9% were overweight, having BMI at or above the 85th percentile.
  • Children between 12 and 19 years old were more likely to have high BMI than younger children.
  • Mexican–American boys and girls and non-Hispanic black girls had higher BMI than non-Hispanic white boys and girls.

When the researchers compared these percentages to those from previous surveys, no real change was seen since nearly a decade ago.

Based on data from older surveys, the trend in childhood overweight and obesity was clearly upward from 1980, when only 6.5% of children ages 6 to 11 were obese. By 1994 that number had risen to more than 11%, and by 2002, it had climbed to more than 16%, where it seems to have reached a plateau.

An opportunity to outpace obesity
Although the reasons for the change in trend is not yet known, we do know that some behaviors can help children avoid becoming overweight and obese. Taking steps when your children are young will help them develop positive habits that will keep them healthy into adulthood.

  • Avoid fast foods, which are high in calories and fat. Home-cooked meals made with whole grains and lots of vegetables will help your family stay healthy.
  • Watch the portions. Portion sizes of prepared foods are large and growing. Eat at home and try letting your children serve themselves. We tend to eat what’s put in front of us, but left to dish out their own food, children tend to take and eat smaller portions.
  • Skip sugary soft drinks. These add empty calories in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, implicated in the rising trends in overweight, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
  • Keep kids active and limit screen time—including television, movies, and computers.

Healthcare professionals who work with children agree that these rates need to come down before we can breathe a sigh of relief. Said Cynthia Ogden, PhD, the study's lead author and an epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics, "It doesn’t mean we’ve solved it, but maybe there is some opportunity for some optimism here."

Ogden CL, Carrol MD, and Flegal KM. "High body mass index for age among US children and adolescents, 2003-2006." JAMA 2008; 299: 2401–5.


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