The Demographics of Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity has been a widespread issue in the United States since the 1960s. The problem of obesity isn’t limited to a few children — nearly 33 percent of American children and teenagers are obese, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Obesity is often measured using the Body Mass Index (BMI), which compares a person’s height and weight to estimate a level of body fat. A child can be considered obese if his or her BMI is at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex.

The negative health consequences of childhood obesity may include a wide variety of serious medical complications such as early onset adult diabetes, gall bladder problems, asthma, sleep apnea, and knee joint disorders. In addition, 70 percent of obese youth have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Childhood obesity is a complicated problem with many contributing factors. Understanding the causes and risk disparities associated with childhood obesity can shed light on the scope of the problem and point to possible solutions.

Causes of Childhood Obesity

A variety of risk factors contribute to the obesity epidemic. A Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of the CDC states that the consumption of high energy-density foods (with a high calorie per gram ratio), decreased activity, an increase in television viewing and mass marketing of “fast foods” to children have exacerbated the problem. Likewise, the poor diets found in “food deserts” — regional areas in the United States with a lack of fresh, nutritious and affordable foods — predispose children to gaining weight.

Childhood Obesity Risk Disparities

Obesity is not evenly distributed throughout the population but is concentrated in certain ethnic groups and geographical areas. Among African American children and adolescents, 25.7 percent are considered obese as opposed to 15.2 percent of white youth and 22.9 percent of Hispanic youth, according to a fact sheet of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Geographically, the distribution of obesity is highest in the southern states, which may be a result of the high poverty rates in the region. Families with limited funds often stretch their budgets by purchasing low-cost foods that tend to contain large amounts of sugar and fat.

Although childhood obesity is caused by a complicated web of interrelated factors, recent media attention has focused on one variable that has the potential to affect millions of students: school lunches.

Targeting School-Based Lunch Programs

Over the past 30 years, school lunches shifted from lower calorie options to pizza and “fast food” choices that are high in carbohydrates and sugar. One reason for this unhealthy shift was that school meal programs depend — for their economic viability — on students purchasing food items. Since youngsters prefer “fast food” meals (such as burgers and fries) to vegetables that are high in vitamins and low in calories, school cafeteria administrators changed their offerings to brand-name products favored by children and teens.

In 2010, Michelle Obama initiated the “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity through nutrition and exercise. One of its initial goals was to decrease the calories and improve the nutritional content of school-based lunch programs. In 2012, the “Let’s Move” campaign prompted the Department of Agriculture to revise its standards for school-based lunches for the first time in 15 years — requiring more vegetables and fruits along with calorie limits by age group, as well as lowering fat and salt intake. Providing fresh salads in school cafeterias is also being encouraged by the “Let’s Move” campaign in collaboration with community-based programs and with support from food industry members.

University Efforts to Promote Obesity Prevention

While school districts across the United States implement changes to school lunches, research institutions are also working to counteract the obesity epidemic by educating future public health experts about the scope of the problem. George Washington University has received special recognition for making obesity and food issues a core focus. In a keynote speech for the “Building a Healthier Future 2013” summit, Michelle Obama praised GW for “all the wonderful work this university is doing to forward the agenda of nutrition and fitness.”

GW students have the opportunity to participate in research symposiums to analyze health policies. A recent example is the symposium “From Cradle to College: Best Practices in Obesity Prevention” that was held at the Children’s National Medical Center (CNMC) in Washington, D.C. At this event, Dr. Nazrat Mirza, M.D., Sc.D. — the founder and director of the Obesity Clinic at CNMC — described the elements of successful intervention programs.

The GW Urban Food Task Force is another dynamic initiative that brings together faculty, students and volunteers to promote healthy eating and support scholarship on sustainable urban food policies. The program features a variety of engaging events such as a pop-up produce market, a film screening, lectures, volunteer opportunities and more.

Implications of Childhood Obesity

The impact of obesity on mental health can be as deleterious as on physical health. Overweight children are frequently the target of taunting by other children and can develop a poor self-image lasting into adulthood. Likewise, obese children are more likely to remain so in adulthood — and obesity has been linked to premature cardiac aging, according to a 2011 article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States is a critical health care issue that requires the dedication of health care professionals and community members alike. Because childhood obesity has many factors, including diet, exercise and socioeconomic disparities, solutions can only be found through a combined, interdisciplinary approach. In order to combat this growing epidemic, public health professionals and community members must unite under a common goal to better understand and reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity.

Cost of Obesity

Learn more about the Cost of Obesity in the United States in our 2013 National Public Health Week infographic contest winner. In the graphic we display statistics that highlight obesity as a national epidemic, the financial impact on our communities and the overall economy, and preventative measures we can take to positively affect change at a national level.