Childhood obesity, which has been on the rise for more than two decades, appears to have hit a plateau, a potentially significant development in the battle against excessive weight gain among children.
But the finding, based on survey data gathered from 1999 to 2006 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was greeted with guarded optimism. The survey was published in today's issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Doctors noted that even if the trend holds up, 32 percent of American schoolchildren remain overweight or obese, representing an entire generation that will be saddled with weight-related health problems as it ages.
"After 25 years of extraordinarily bad news about childhood obesity, this study provides a glimmer of hope," said Dr. David Ludwig, director of the childhood obesity program at Children's Hospital in Boston. "But it's much too soon to know whether this is a true plateau in prevalence or just a temporary lull."
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Texas Rep. Kay Granger, who is leading an initiative to help families on everything from single moms raising children and working, to retirement needs, said the study's results are good news.
"However, we need to continue an aggressive effort to inform parents of the devastating affects of childhood obesity," said Granger, R-Fort Worth. "After nearly quadrupling since the 1970s, I look forward to the day when the obesity rate starts to decline."
The most recent data are based on two surveys — one in 2003-04 and one in 2005-06 — that included 8,165 children ages 2 to 19. In that group, about 16 percent of children and teenagers were obese, which is defined as having a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile on U.S. growth charts. By comparison, about 5 percent of children and teenagers in the United States were obese in the 1960s and 1970s.
As startling as those numbers are, the good news is that from a statistical standpoint, obesity rates have not increased since 1999. Estimates for the number of children who fall into the overweight or obese category have also remained stable at about 32 percent since 1999. Overweight is defined as at or above the 85th percentile.
The plateau follows years of excessive weight gain among American schoolchildren. For instance, in 1980, 6.5 percent of children age 6 to 11 were obese, but by 1994 that number had climbed to 11.3 percent.
By 2002, the number had jumped to 16.3 percent, but it has now appeared to have stabilized around 17 percent.
"It doesn't mean we've solved it, but maybe there is some opportunity for some optimism here," said Cynthia Ogden, the lead author of the journal report and an epidemiologist for the National Center for Health Statistics.
Staff writer Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report.
Online: Journal of the American Medical Association, jama.ama-assn.org