Contrary to Previous Reports, New Study Finds Childhood Obesity Still on the Rise

Published in March Issue             

Three decades of rising childhood obesity continued its upward trend in 2016, according to a new analysis from Duke Health researchers. This, despite reports in recent years suggesting obesity rates in children were stabilizing or even declining.

The study, which appeared last month in the journal Pediatrics, shows 35.1 percent of children were overweight, a 4.7 percent increase compared to 2014, and 20 percent had obesity.

"About four years ago, there was evidence of a decline in obesity in preschoolers,"
Asheley Cockrell Skinner, PhD, lead author and associate professor of population health sciences, who is also a member of the Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI), said in a news release. "It appears any decline that may have been detected by looking at different snapshots in time or different data sets has reversed course. The long-term trend is clearly that obesity in children of all ages is increasing."

In 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that childhood obesity rates had leveled off and declined by 43 percent in children ages 2 to 5 years old during a 10-year period ending in 2012.

The Duke researchers said that previously reported improvements seen in younger children “were either an anomaly or transient.”

This new study showed major spikes in obesity and severe obesity from 2015 to 2016 among boys ages 2 to 5 years old, rising from 8.5 percent to 14.2 percent. Obesity rates in girls ages 16 to 19 jumped from 35.6 percent to 47.9 percent.

The 2015-2016 data for 3,340 children comes from the CDC’s National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES), but researchers examined data dating back to 1999 that includes 33,543 children.

Across all age groups, African-American and Hispanic children had higher rates of overweight and all levels of obesity, while Asian-American children had markedly lower rates. The most prominent trend since 1999 is the increase in all levels of overweight for Hispanic girls, and overweight and Class II obesity (BMI that is at least 120 percent above the 95th percentile for age and sex) among Hispanic males.

Dr. Skinner said the study has limitations, relying on two-year data that provides snapshots in time across a wide population. But she said the NHANES database is a broader data source than sources for studies that have found declines in obesity rates among smaller or segmented populations.

David Ludwig, MD, PhD, an endocrinologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote in an accompanying editorial that “our public health approach to the epidemic has largely failed so far.” He cites a study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine that predicts the majority of 2-year-old boys today will have obesity by age 35. Nonetheless, he says “progressive weight gain from one generation to next is not inevitable.” Dr. Ludwig calls for the federal government to form an interagency commission on obesity “to align food policy with public health and current science.”

Recent data shows that up to 80 percent of children affected by obesity will continue to be affected by obesity into adulthood.

Samer Mattar, MD

“Just like any other disease, if we can successfully prevent, or detect and treat overweight and obesity earlier in its progression, we can increase life expectancy and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other diseases related to obesity. We must exhaust every possible avenue to help turn the corner in both the childhood and adult obesity epidemic, and that includes increasing awareness about its dangers and providing access to proven obesity treatment like bariatric surgery, when appropriate,” said Samer Mattar, MD, President of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.