Obesity rates among children in the U.S. have tripled since the 1970s, with roughly 18.5 percent of American youths classified as obese in 2016. The childhood obesity epidemic can be chiefly attributed to sedentary lifestyles and poor nutrition, though genetics plays a role.
To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the University of Nevada-Reno’s School of Social Work.
Overview of Childhood Obesity in the U.S.
In 2015-16, 20 percent of adolescents ages 12-19 were considered obese. This designation fit 18.4% of school-age children ages 6-11, and 13.9% preschool-age children ages 2-5. Going back to 1971, the obesity rate in boys rose from 5.3% to 19.1%, and 5.1% to 17.8% in girls. The data also revealed that 25.8% of Mexican-American children were obese, compared to 22% of African-American children, 14.1% of white children, and 11% of Asian American children.
According to a 2017 report by the World Health Organization, there are a few socioeconomic factors that can contribute to childhood obesity. For instance, gestational diabetes occurring during pregnancy may cause an increased birth weight and obesity risk as children reach maturity. A lack of information on healthy, nutritional diet has also been blamed, as has unhealthy food for infants and young children like foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar. Additionally, increased urbanization and digitization leads to a decrease in physical activity and healthy play.
Obesity and its Adverse Effects
Obese children are at a substantially elevated risk of adverse health and social outcomes.
Type 2 Diabetes
Obese children are four times as likely to develop the condition compared with children with a body mass index (BMI) in the normal range. This condition can lead to issues ranging from fatigue and slow sore and cut healing to heart disease and kidney failure.
Obese children are also more likely to become obese adults and are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease. These risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and prediabetes or diabetes.
The Southern California Health Study (CHS) at USC established a link between asthma and obesity in children. Children with early life asthma were 51% more likely to develop obesity, and children with a history of wheezing were 42% more likely to develop obesity.
Obese children are more likely to report numerous emotional and social impacts, like low self-reported quality of life, low self-esteem, and anxiety. Obesity is also linked to poorer academic performance, as studies indicate obese students are more likely to have missed school days, have a learning disability, or have slower cognitive processes. Finally, there is a link between size and bullying. 24% of boys and 30% of girls experience daily teasing or bullying because of their size. Moreover, 58% of overweight boys and 63% of overweight girls experience daily teasing or bullying.
Contributing Factors of Obesity in Children
Sedentary lifestyles play a big role in obesity. Each additional hour of TV per day increases the prevalence of obesity by 2%. This is important to note, as the number of hours spent sedentarily per week in the U.S. increases by 1.3% each year.
Dietary factors are also a big concern. U.S. children eat 19.4 teaspoons of sugar per 2,000 calories consumed, which is almost 400% more than the 3.9 teaspoons of added sugar that’s the daily recommended maximum. Fast food is also an issue, as 34.3 % of American children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 consume fast food on a typical day. Moreover, 12.1 percent of children and adolescents get more than 40% of their calories from fast food.
The American Heart Association has produced guidelines to help grown-ups limit added sugar consumption among children. The promotion of healthy eating habits is also critical, and this can take the form of providing healthy food options, offering reasonably-sized portions at mealtimes, offering snacks low in fat, sugar, and calories, and encouraging the drinking of water in lieu of sugary beverages.
Parents can also strive to have more home-cooked family meals with their children, which lowers the odds of obesity. They should also make sure their kids are getting enough sleep. Finally, they should also lead by example via exercise, as studies show that active parents also produce active children.
The CDC recommends schools incorporate nutrition and physical activity into health education curriculum and other subjects when appropriate. They also recommend the implementation of school-wide wellness programs for staff and students. Additionally, they push to provide access to healthy food and daily physical activity opportunities. Finally, they advocate for the assessment of current healthy eating and physical activity policies and practices.
Health care providers can be advocates for healthy lifestyles. Key strategies here include the encouragement of self-monitoring and more nutritious selection, identifying at-risk children as early as possible, helping families develop communication and parenting skills pertaining to healthy foods and physical activity, and setting healthy food and activity targets.
Elected Officials and Community Leaders
Educating and advocating for wise-science-based policy is essential to changing the big picture on childhood obesity. Successful strategies that policymakers can take include the promotion of high-quality health and physical education, addressing health disparities within communities, and supporting the development of school health councils and rigorous health planning processes.