Public Health

Rising teen obesity rate sparks push for healthier schools

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

The overall childhood obesity rate has been stable over the past decade, but obesity among the nation’s teens is still on the rise. A recent report calls for early-childhood and school-based policies and programs to accelerate the progress in helping kids achieve and maintain healthy weights.

About 17 percent of the nation’s children are obese, a rate that has held steady the past 10 years, according to “The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America,” a 143-page report issued by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health. When data is broken down by age groups, each group is seeing a little something different.

The nation’s youngest children—ages 2 to 5—have seen obesity rates fall over the past decade, the report showed. Meanwhile, the rates among the oldest children, between 12 and 19 years old, have risen during that time. Kids in the middle—ages 6 to 11—have seen rates stabilize.

While it is encouraging that some childhood obesity rates are falling or stabilizing, obesity among children of all ages is much more prevalent today than when the baby boomers were having children. Since 1980, the obesity rate for children between 2 and 19 years old has tripled. When broken down by age:

  • Kids between 6 and 11 years old have seen their obesity rates jump to 17.5 percent in 2014, more than doubling the 7 percent rate in 1980.
  • Children between 12 and 19 years old have seen their obesity rates quadruple, with 20.5 percent of these children being obese in 2014, compared with 5 percent in 1980.

In addition to differences among age groups, there also are “significant” racial and ethnic inequalities, the report noted. For example, almost 22 percent of Latino children and nearly 20 percent of black children are obese; nearly 15 percent of white children are obese and almost 9 percent of Asian children are obese.

“Obesity remains one of the biggest threats to the health of our children and our country, putting millions of Americans at increased risk for a range of chronic diseases and contributing to more than $147 billion to $210 billion dollars in preventable health care spending,” the report said.

Gaming, food deserts make matters worse

The report also found that there is room to improve lifestyle and other factors that contribute to unhealthy weights. Among the findings:

  • Nearly 42 percent of high school students report playing video or computer games three or more hours a day, up from 22 percent in 2003.
  • More than 29 million children live in “food deserts” and more than 15 million children live in “food insecure” households with not enough to eat and limited access to healthy food.
  • Farm-to-school programs now serve more than 42 percent of schools and 23.6 million children.
  • Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., require a minimum amount of time that elementary students must participate in physical education; 14 states and Washington, D.C., require a minimum amount for middle schoolers and six states require a minimum amount for high schoolers.

Limit access to screens, junk food  

Among the report’s recommendations to speed up progress in addressing obesity, there are a number of suggestions on how to help children.

The report’s authors outlined ways to target early childhood policies and programs, such as supporting better childhood health through healthier meals, more physical activity, limited screen time and connecting families to community services through Head Start. They also called for prioritizing early-childhood education opportunities under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and implementing the updated nutrition standards covering the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

Schools can make a difference, by continuing the implementation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s so-called "smart snacks" rule to improve the nutritional value of snacks and beverages sold in schools. Schools also should eliminate in-school marketing of unhealthy foods and take opportunities to support health, physical education and activity under ESSA, the report said.

Physician resources

The American Academy of Pediatrics provides information and resources on fighting childhood obesity through its Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight.

The AMA’s online resource, Prevent Diabetes STAT, provides information that can help physicians and their care teams partner with patients to prevent or delay type 2 diabetes.

More on helping patients prevent diabetes and fight obesity: