Despite the national school system and community-based efforts to encourage healthy habits from a young age the prevalence of childhood obesity is growing more prevalent across the United States, a recent study has revealed.
The study, which was published on Tuesday in Pediatrics was based on two nationally representative children’s groups from kindergarten through fifth grade — about the age of 6-11. This first study group examined from 1998 until 2004 and the second was examined from 2010 until the year 2016.
The differences among the two categories was noticeable in the following way: 16.2 percent of children who didn’t have issues with weight as they entered kindergarten 2010, were overweight by the 5th grade’s end in comparison to 15.5 percent of those within the same BMI group who began in 1998. Furthermore, children studying in 2010 were obese in younger ages than counterparts from the group in 1998.
In both cases children who were overweight in their early years of preschool had an increased chance of being obese than counterparts who were not as overweight, research found.
“Once you get on that train towards elevated weight gain, it’s really hard to turn it around, so prevention of overweight and obesity really early on are so important,” Solveig Cunningham, the primary study’s author as well as associate professor in global health, epidemiology and public health within Emory University in Atlanta.
Obesity is when someone has an excessive accumulation of fat that poses an increased risk of health according to the World Health Organization. Adults with the body mass index (BMI) which is which is a measure based on weight and height that is greater than 30 are considered to be overweight. Childhood obesity is not measured through exact BMI but rather by comparing with other children with similar age and gender. People who fall in the 95th percentile in BMI for their gender and age are considered to be obese in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Obesity is a significant risk factor for many diseases that include type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, along with certain cancers and severe instances of Covid-19 as reported by The Mayo Clinic.
“Without intervention, we will continue to see increasing prevalence and severity of obesity for children at a younger age, which has really negative consequences down the line, not just for these children, but also for their future offspring,” said Dr. Jennifer Woo Baidal, director of the Pediatric Obesity Initiative at Columbia University in New York City. She wasn’t involved in the research.
Risk factors for obesity in children
Because the study focused on children before spreading of the Covid-19 virus it isn’t able to reflect the effects of the pandemic on obesity in children. Some doctors believe that the rates continue to increase, particularly for children of shade.
Kids of different races, specifically Black as well as Hispanic children were most at risk danger of becoming overweight in childhood according to the study. Children of non-Hispanic origin who did not have weight issues when they started kindergarten in 2010 , were found to be 29% more likely to become obese in fifth grade than peers who began in 1998.
Social class is not a significant indicator of obesity in children according this study.
“That was unexpected because we’ve generally seen kids from wealthier households be more protected from a lot of health issues, especially obesity,” Cunningham stated. “This really highlighted for me that obesity affects everybody across socioeconomic status.”
Because the study only followed children up to fifth grade, the researchers aren’t sure what the socioeconomic status of the participants and their race affect prevalence of obesity once students entered sixth grade and beyond. But, based on previous research on obesity in adults it is probable that those with less socioeconomic status will have higher rates of obesity in adulthood as stated by Professor Dr. Venkat Narayan, a senior researcher on the study and the director for the Global Diabetes Research Center at Emory.
“Lack of access to healthy foods, lack of access to physical activity, higher unemployment, all of those factors can collaborate to increase the risk of diseases like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease,” Narayan stated.
A health concern for the public
Since 2010, many public health initiatives have been initiated to lower levels of obesity among children and obesity, such as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Despite these efforts, the rates of childhood obesity have risen which suggests that these efforts aren’t as beneficial as we think, Cunningham said.
Experts believe that reducing the rate of childhood obesity could be a matter of through public policy, for example, making school nutrition programs more nutritious in addition to expanding Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“Those types of policy changes, there’s some evidence that they reduce food insecurity, improve nutrition, and can improve child weight outcomes together in an equitable way,” Baidal stated.
But, as socioeconomic status isn’t an important indicator of obesity in children policies may not be sufficient by themselves, Narayan said.
A more systematic approach to research is required to identify the causes leading to higher prevalence and even earlier signs of obesity in children, as well as finding strategies to stop obesity from becoming “severe,” he added.
“Other countries keep large registries and databases, where they can have this timely surveillance of what is happening over time with individuals,” Baidal declared. “It’s just another sign of the lack of investment in child health and (obesity) prevention in the United States.”
Interventions at home for children’s overweight
Traditional methods of weight loss including strict diets, may not always work, and may be harmful, Cunningham added.
There isn’t one single recommended preventative or intervention strategy for obesity in children. The most effective way parents and caregivers can discuss is with their child’s pediatric doctor, Baidal said.
The teaching of healthy habits, including exercise, nutrition as well as good sleep, and the reduction of stress is yet another method parents and caregivers can help reduce childhood obesity, she explained.
“What the literature is showing is that the most effective treatment involves family-based behavioral treatments, where we’re teaching families about behavioral strategies to help change the home environment,” said Dr. Kyung Rhee, professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego, who was not part of the study.
It is beneficial for caregivers and parents to highlight that these are important behaviors throughout the family to ensure that children do not feel ashamed or blamed for their weight.
Although obesity is an indicator of health problems and other health issues, focusing on weight loss isn’t always the most effective solution, according to Rhee who is a specialist in patients suffering from eating disorders as well as those suffering from childhood overweight.