Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Child obesity rates still high, but not rising

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I recently watched the original Terminator movie with my son (it's a guy thing).  The first time I saw it was in basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, in the summer of 1985*.  We weren't allowed to read novels or watch TV during basic training, so the Terminator was the only "culture" I saw that summer.  It's burned into my memory.

If you've seen the movie (what's wrong with the rest of you?!), you'll remember the plot line that the fate of humankind is not sealed--we are not doomed to extinction nor guaranteed prosperity.  In the early 1990's experts warned that, left unchecked, childhood obesity rates could hit 30% by 2030 (a Schwarzenegger-led robot apocalypse notwithstanding).  So does the latest childhood obesity data, showing a flat line of ~17% from 1999-2010, mean that our prevention efforts are failing, or that we're succeeding at altering our destiny?

The updated data from the CDC show child obesity rates holding steady just shy of 17%, with boys sitting a little heavier than gals (18.6% vs. 15.0%).  Overall rates have been nearly constant since the 1999-2000 survey, with the exception of 12-19 year old males, which are rising.  These data confirm we still have an obesity crisis among American youth, but leveling-off is a good sign that our efforts are not in vain.

What is unsettling about the new data is how dramatically the obesity rates vary between groups.  Overweight/obesity rates are highest among non-Hispanic black and Hispanic kids.

And while this article does not present data by socioeconomic status (SES), nor does it adjust for it, lower SES is known to relate to higher rates of obesity.  We must continue to expand intervention efforts, targeting those most at risk.  The NHANES data also clearly show an obesity problem starting as young as 2 years old (12.1% of whom are obese).  Obesity prevention and obesity treatment are resistant to change, so we need to start young, before unhealthy diet and physical activity behaviors become habitual.

No single segment of society will solve the obesity problem alone.  Parents, families, schools, communities, health care, agriculture, food producers, media, and businesses must prioritize and coordinate actions.  Given recent public information and policy efforts, multilevel systems or societal changes will be necessary to avoid the harmful health implications of obesity.

Our fate is not sealed, but solving the obesity problem will require a big solution.

What should YOU do?

If you have preschool, elementary or middle school children, insist your child's school implement the CATCH program. Just send an email to your school district's School Health Advisory Council (SHAC).

If you don't have kids, volunteer to build a school garden or walking trail.

Hasta la Vista, baby!

Written by
Steven H Kelder, PhD

Steve Kelder is Co-Director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, and a Professor of Epidemiology at the UT School of Public Health, Austin Regional Campus.
Follow Steve on Twitter: @DrSteveKelder

*I've since learned that Ft. Leonard Wood is the first Army training base to change their physical training and food service regime to account for more obese and unfit recruits.  The Army has been washing out and recycling a higher proportion of recruits because of injuries while molding their fighting machines.