Trends in Childhood and Adolescent Obesity Rates

Reports about obesity rates leveling off and even decreasing slightly among some populations have been in the news recently. According to a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, the prevalence of obesity in preschoolers from low-income families over the last few years has decreased in 19 of 43 U.S. states and territories included in the study. Michigan was one state with decreasing obesity rates for preschoolers from low-income families from 2008 – 2011, while Ohio’s rates remained the same.

Such reports are very encouraging, but there is still much more work to be done to bring down obesity rates.

In adolescents aged 12 – 17, obesity rates appear to have leveled off over the last few years, with about 17% of that age group considered obese. Despite this plateau, however, Harvard University researchers note some interesting socioeconomic trends in a recent article, “Increasing Socioeconomic Disparities in Adolescent Obesity.”

Study results outlined in the article suggest that the obesity rate is actually climbing among adolescents from less educated families, while the rate among those from more educated families is decreasing. In the study, parental education was used as an indicator of socioeconomic status, and similar patterns were also seen when using family income as an indicator of socioeconomic status. (The same trends were not seen in children aged 2 – 11 years.)

So what is leading to these health disparities? Families of low socioeconomic status may lack access to healthy food; the finances to purchase healthy food that can be more expensive, such as fresh fruits and vegetables; education to make healthy choices on a budget; and/or community resources that promote regular physical activity.

It is important to recognize that adolescents from families with low socioeconomic status continue to need support in the fight against obesity. We need to provide better education, especially related to health and nutrition. We also need to increase access to healthy foods and provide more opportunities for physical activity. Without a greater focus on disadvantaged youth, the increasing gap in obesity rates will likely continue.

There is no one strategy for addressing the obesity epidemic, so as a community, we must continue to develop varied initiatives and interventions that reach all populations.

Chloe Berdan, MS, RD, LD, is a clinical dietitian with ProMedica Advocacy and Community Health, and her main passion is promoting childhood and adolescent health and wellness. She has a bachelor of science degree in Health and Sport Studies from Miami University and a master of science degree in Clinical Nutrition from Rush University.