A Weighty Issue: Childhood Obesity

- MERITUSAt one time, an overweight child was more the exception than the rule. Unfortunately, the number of obese children in the United States is increasing at an alarming rate.

According to a 2012 report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the United States has the highest prevalence of obesity among developed nations. The percentage of young Americans who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980. In 2009 to 2010, 17 percent of young people aged 2 to 19 years were considered obese.

Up to 80 percent of children who are obese remain overweight as adults, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Childhood obesity is more prevalent in the Northeast, followed by the Midwest, South, and West. It is also more prevalent in cities than in rural areas.

The determination of childhood obesity is more than the numbers on a scale. Nutritional experts rely on body mass index (BMI) to estimate body fat and the degree of overweight or obesity. BMI is a mathematical formula that uses a person's height and weight. Cutoffs to determine normal, overweight, and obese weight in children are based on BMI-for-age growth charts. Children with BMI values at or above the 95th percentile are considered overweight.

Too little exercise, too much junk food

Although obesity in adults and children stem from eating more calories than are burned in physical activity, the issue involves a complex interaction between lifestyle, environment, and genes. However, the rise in childhood obesity can be primarily tied to two factors: too little exercise and too many calories. Children get less exercise at home because of more time spent with television, video games, and computers. They also get less exercise at school because many schools have cut back on physical education classes.

In addition, time-strapped families end up eating more meals at fast-food restaurants or buying take-out food—choices that often include foods high in calories and fat and large portion sizes. Many schools also include franchised fast-food menu choices for lunch, as well as soft drink and candy machines for snacks. Under public pressure, some schools have begun stocking vending machines with healthier choices, such as fresh fruit and fruit juices.

Genetics and race also play a role in who ultimately will become overweight or obese. Children of overweight parents are at a greater risk for obesity themselves, and recent studies have found over two-thirds of American adults are either overweight or obese. More Mexican-American and non-Hispanic black girls than non-Hispanic white girls are overweight. More Mexican-American boys than non-Hispanic black or white boys are overweight, according to the NCHS. Click here for more. 

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