A recent study by the Pediatrics journal revealed that childhood obesity trends are rising at staggering rates, especially in children younger than 11 years old.
The study followed two separate groups of similarly-aged children in different eras. The first leg of the study looked at children from 1998-2004 in grades K-5. The second leg of the study looked at the same age range for children growing up between 2010-2016.
Percentages of childhood obesity did not differ much (15.5% in 1998 versus 16.2% in 2010), but what did skyrocket was the age at which children began showing signs of obesity. Across the board, children studied in later years began showing signs of childhood obesity much earlier than children from 1998. In fact, many of the later children showed signs of obesity in preschool — then just kept on the weight (or added to it) as they grew into elementary age.
“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,” said Solveig Argeseanu Cunningham, first author of the study and associate professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta.
The definition of obesity is not without its detractors. It uses indicators from the body mass index (BMI) scale, which takes into account height and weight to assign a number. Any bodybuilder in peak performance shape (and weighing more than others who share his average height) will tell you that BMI does not accurately reflect his or her true health markers.
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Childhood obesity is different, though, considering that young people tend to grow according to national averages. Childhood obesity simply uses BMI, as well; but instead of just assigning a number, the metrics compare that number with other children of the same age. Any child in the 95th percentile of BMI is considered obese by the World Health Organization standards.
“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 was not involved in the study.
Body positivity activists have hijacked the weight conversation in recent years as the definition of idealism in adult bodies changes. But in children, the metrics remain quite straightforward: being grossly overweight during childhood as compared to other growing humans of similar age is simply dangerous. Childhood obesity is a major underlying risk factor for many illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and severe cases of Covid-19, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While obesity is often a strong predictor of health issues, emphasizing weight loss is not always a helpful solution, according to some doctors.
“Reframe the whole thing in terms of healthier lifestyles and healthier environments,” Dr. Venkat Narayan, a senior author of the study and the executive director of the Global Diabetes Research Center at Emory, said. “It’s better to talk about eating healthy, adequate physical activity for children, adequate play environments, safer play environments, particularly in poorer socioeconomic neighborhoods.”