Child Obesity Rates Stabilizing But They’re Still Really High

Children's hand isolated on red background
After rising for years, abdominal obesity rates are finally leveling off among American children.
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Childhood abdominal obesity rates are leveling off after significantly increasing for years, a new study conducted by University of Minnesota researchers shows.

This is good news, yes, because at least kids aren’t getting fatter. But don’t let those headlines fool you into thinking obesity has become less of a problem. The childhood obesity epidemic is still severe: 17 percent of children and teens in the United States are obese and 32 percent are overweight.

The new study, published in the medical journal Pediatrics this week, analyzed and compared health data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) over the past decade. More than 12,600 American children ages 2 to 18 years old were included in the study.

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While previous studies have suggested that overall childhood obesity rates had stabilized, the fact that abdominal obesity in particular has stabilized is notable since it is the most dangerous type of obesity. Abdominal obesity refers to excessive fat in the abdominal area—“visceral fat”—and is associated with a host of serious health consequences, including higher risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. While abdominal obesity has stabilized among all children and adolescents, the rate has actually decreased significantly among 2 to 5 year olds, according to the study.

Trends in the Prevalence of Abdominal Obesity (%,SE) Among US Children and Adolescents Ages 2 to 18 Years
Trends in the Prevalence of Abdominal Obesity (%,SE) Among US Children and Adolescents Ages 2 to 18 Years
NHANES 2003-2004 to 2011-2012

Abdominal obesity is defined by two measures: waist circumference and waist-to-height ratio. Children with a waist circumference greater than the sex- and age-specific 90th percentile, or with a waist-to-height ratio of 0.5, are considered abdominally obese, according to the report.

The researchers found that from 2003 to 2012, childhood abdominal obesity rates leveled off around 18 percent. In 2012, approximately 18 percent of children and adolescents 2 to 18 years old were abdominally obese as a measure of waist circumference. Approximately 32 percent of that group were obese as a measure of waist-to-height ratio.

These rates are consistent with abdominal obesity rates throughout the decade: 18.33 percent of children were obese as defined by waist circumference in 2004, 18.65 percent in 2006, 19.4 percent in 2008, and 18.3 percent in 2010 (see table on right).

While curbing obesity rates is a step in the right direction, childhood obesity rates are still high and should remain a serious health concern, the study notes.

“Number one, it’s good, the prevalence of abdominal obesity remained the same over the last eight years, that’s good, but the prevalence is still high, so we need to think about what to do to lower the numbers,” lead author Dr. Lyn. M. Steffen told Reuters Health.

Approximately one in five American children and teens is obese and one in three is overweight, according to the Let’s Move Campaign. Even at these stabilized rates, one-third of children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes.