With more than a third of children and adolescents overweight or obese — a statistic that has tripled within the past three decades — the prevalence of childhood obesity has reached epidemic levels by most estimations.

While the indisputable facts have prompted a significant amount of legislative initiatives and public awareness campaigns aimed at reversal, individual instances do not always receive the attention needed for case-by-case prevention. This is particularly true when parents and families fail to understand the severity that obesity bears on a child’s short and long-term health outcomes.

Perhaps more difficult to offset than obesity itself are the co-morbid complications that are often undiagnosed until the end of the preventative phase. Physicians would welcome a non-invasive, painless way to provide families with a scientific and measurable assessment showing that a child’s weight affects his or her likelihood of developing an array of chronic diseases.

A new study that fellow researchers at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital and I are presenting at this year’s Digestive Disease Week (DDW) conference makes such concrete evidence easier than ever to access — less painful than the prick of a needle during an annual physical examination and easier still than a urinalysis.

Imagine — a breath test that assesses whether a child is obese, while also giving clues as to a child’s likelihood of developing chronic conditions such as diabetes, fatty liver disease and sleep apnea. It could be a critical research tool for physicians and an imperative wake-up call for parents.

Like a fingerprint, this breath test offers an analytical snapshot of the volatile organic compounds in breath that are unique to each individual. In our study, the test identified obese children as compared to their lean counterparts at an accuracy rate of 92 percent.

What makes the study so important lies within the promise to expound upon its results. It is estimated that the recent skyrocket in type 2 diabetes rates, a condition previously uncommon among children, is directly linked to a steady rise in obesity nationwide.

Not only are more than 200,000 people age twenty or younger currently suffering from diagnosed diabetes, the rate of pre-diabetes among youth has risen from 9 percent to 23 percent in the ten short years between 1999 and 2008.

If similar patterns continue, obese children of today could go on to have high cholesterol as teenagers and may even suffer a stroke as early as their 20s or 30s.

Although we consider the breathprints tool an early innovation, we expect it to spur pioneering research in providing new, less-invasive ways to screen for risks of obesity-related complications.

Using personalized data such as breathprints in making recommendations, pediatricians can base medical guidance on fact rather than population-based generalizations. Fully implemented, physicians will be able to create individual early intervention plans in lifestyle, diet and physical activity to fight this epidemic, one child at a time.

We are eager to see how we and our GI colleagues can use this and other exciting innovations to advance obesity research during this and future DDWs.

Image: Girl blowing a pinwheel - iStock photo.