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Early Childhood Obesity Rates Might Be Slowing Nationwide

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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early childhood obesity decrease

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/fotostorm

About one in three children in the U.S. are now overweight, and since the 1980s the number of children who are obese has more than tripled. But a new study of 26.7 million young children from low-income families shows that in this group of kids, the tidal wave of obesity might finally be receding.

Being obese as a child not only increases the risk of early-life health problems, such as joint problems, pre-diabetes and social stigmatization, but it also dramatically increases the likelihood of being obese later in life, which can lead to chronic diseases, including cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Children as young as 2 years of age can be obese—and even extremely obese. Early childhood obesity rates, which bring higher health care costs throughout a kid’s life, have been especially high among lower-income families.

“This is the first national study to show that the prevalence of obesity and extreme obesity among young U.S. children may have begun to decline,” the researchers noted in a brief report published online December 25 in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association. (Reports earlier this year suggested that childhood obesity rates were dropping in several U.S. cities.)

The study examined rates of obesity (body mass index calculated by age and gender to be in the 95th percentile or higher—for example, a BMI above 20 for a 2-year-old male—compared with reference growth charts) and extreme obesity (BMI of more than 120 percent above that of the 95th percentile of the reference populations) in children ages 2 to 4 in 30 states and the District of Columbia. The researchers, led by Liping Pan, of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, combed through 12 years of data (1998 to 2010) from the Pediatric Nutritional Surveillance System, which includes information on roughly half of all children on the U.S. who are eligible for federal health care and nutrition assistance.

A subtle but important shift in early childhood obesity rates in this low-income population seems to have begun in 2003. Obesity rates increased from 13.05 percent in 1998 to 15.21 percent in 2003. Soon, however, obesity rates began decreasing, reaching 14.94 percent by 2010. Extreme obesity followed a similar pattern, increasing from 1.75 percent to 2.22 percent from 1998 to 2003, but declining to 2.07 percent by 2010.

Although these changes might seem small, the number of children involved makes for huge health implications. For example, each drop of just one tenth of a percentage point represents some 26,700 children in the study population alone who are no longer obese or extremely obese. And if these trends are occurring in the rest of the population, the long-term health and cost implications are massive.

Public health agencies and the Obama Administration have made battling childhood obesity a priority, although these findings suggest that early childhood obesity rates, at least, were already beginning to decline nearly a decade ago. Some popular prevention strategies include encouraging healthier eating (by reducing intake of highly processed and high-sugar foods and increasing fruit and vegetable consumption) and increased physical activity (both at school and at home).

The newly revealed trends “indicate modest recent progress of obesity prevention among young children,” the authors noted. “These finding may have important health implications because of the lifelong health risks of obesity and extreme obesity in early childhood.”

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. alan6302 6:25 pm 12/25/2012

    It is amazing what damage happens when a psychotic politician opens their corrupt mouths.

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  2. 2. Win03 6:29 pm 12/25/2012

    If you think Jonathan`s story is terrific,, last munth my friends sister basically brought home $7113 working a ninteen hour week in their apartment and there friend’s sister-in-law`s neighbour was doing this for six months and made more than $7113 part-time on there pc. applie the instructions on this page…. BIT40.ℂOℳ

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  3. 3. ronyrao 2:34 am 12/26/2012

    Because people accustomed to using more meat and oil in the diet.Since childhood overweight, which is more likely to lead to many diseases, affecting their health and development.http://www.solarinverter-au.com/news/polysilicon-pv%20industry/

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  4. 4. candide 10:44 am 12/26/2012

    Of course they’re slowing – fat people can’t move as fast.

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  5. 5. Sciencefirstandforemost 12:08 pm 12/26/2012

    It’s time to call chunksters what they are…products of child abuse.

    A parent putting a french fry in front of their chunkster is more negligent than a parent who doesn’t have their child buckle up in the car. Greater odds of negative consequences.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Lylyth 8:03 am 12/27/2012

    It may be that people have changed. It can happen. Or maybe its because we took BPA out of the bottles? The epdemic began when we started using plastic bottles and is receding now that we have at least taken the BPA out. Jus’ sayin’.

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  7. 7. bucketofsquid 3:13 pm 01/4/2013

    Why are the first 3 posts either completely unrelated or advertising? SciAm uses third rate blog software that gives no recourse for getting rid of spambots or nutjobs.

    The trend is nice but until we dig deeper and find the original cause of the fat problem we won’t really know why there are slightly less fat children around.

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