Severe Childhood Obesity Increases in U.S.

<p>An ongoing battle against obesity has both consumers and food product developers increasingly interested in improving health through nutrition, especially for future generations. Despite these efforts to improve kids' health, a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics finds all classes of obesity in children have increased during the last 14 years, and there is a troubling upward trend in the more severe forms of childhood obesity.</p>

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—An ongoing battle against obesity has both consumers and food product developers increasingly interested in improving health through nutrition, especially for future generations. Despite these efforts to improve kids' health, a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics finds all classes of obesity in children have increased during the last 14 years, and there is a troubling upward trend in the more severe forms of childhood obesity.

A team of researchers from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine analyzed data collected from 26,690 children ages 2 to 19 years from 1999 to 2012 as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The study found that 17.3% of U.S. children in this age range were obese in 2011 to 2012. At the same time, 5.9% met criteria for Class 2 obesity, while 2.1% met criteria for Class 3 obesity.

For the purposes of the study, “overweight" was defined as having a BMI greater than or equal to the 85th percentile for age and sex, and “obesity" was defined as a BMI greater than or equal to the 95th percentile. The more severe forms of obesity—Class 2 and Class 3 obesity—were defined as a BMI greater than 120% of the 95th percentile for Class 2 and greater than 140% of the 95th percentile for Class 3. This means that a 10-year-old boy who is average height (4.5 feet tall) and weighs 95 pounds would be considered obese, but would meet criteria for class 2 obesity at 115 pounds and class 3 obesity at about 130 pounds.

Asheley Cockrell Skinner, Ph.D., lead author of the study and assistant professor of pediatrics in the UNC School of Medicine, explained that these results contrast with a recent report that showed a decline in obesity among young children in the last decade. Both studies used the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, but the previous study examined only the last decade, while the most recent research used all available years, from 1999 to 2012.

"In 2003, there was an unusual uptick in obesity among young children, which led to the appearance of a significant decline," Cockrell Skinner said. "However, when we look at the bigger picture, that change is not there."

The increase in severe forms of obesity—those in which children have a body mass index (BMI) that is 120% to 140% higher than their peers—is the biggest concern, according to Cockrell Skinner. These extreme cases are associated with heart disease and diabetes risk in children and adolescents, and they are more difficult to treat.

Parents today commonly review ingredient labels and try to encourage kids to eat healthy foods, but creating snacks that meet the approval of both kids and moms can be tricky for product designers. View the Food Product Design Slide Show: Formulating Healthy Kids' Snacks for tricks on creating quality, nutritious snacks for children.

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