In 2001, former Surgeon General David Satcher called the prevalence of overweight and obesity in America a crisis of “epidemic proportions.” At this time, the rates of childhood obesity had tripled since 1970, and some experts predicted, for the first time in history, that children would have shorter life spans than their parents.
In 2000, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released Healthy People 2010, a statement of national health objectives, goals and strategies to achieve them. Some of these objectives were specifically focused on eliminating health disparities and reducing the prevalence of obesity. Now, 10 years into the 21st century, we must ask: What progress has been made addressing the childhood obesity crisis?
A study published today by the American Academy of Pediatrics not only suggests that obesity has increased among black and American Indian girls, but that health disparities may have increased as well. Pediatricians involved in the study say that over the past decade, obesity has declined in white and Asian youth, plateaued in Latino youth, and increased in black and American Indian girls.
These findings were based on mandatory school-based BMI screenings in the state of California. Data was collected from over 8 million children in fifth, seventh and ninth grade between 2001 and 2008. In 2008, 38% of these public school students were overweight, including 19% that were obese and 3.6% that were severely obese.
“For black, Hispanic and American Indian girls, the odds of having a high BMI were 2 to 3 times those of non-Hispanic white girls,” the study reports. Patterns were similar for boys, but less extreme.
Trends in the data also suggest that discrepancies in the prevalence of obesity among children of different ethnicities are expected to worsen over time, widening the gap in health status among Americans of different races.
With this dire prognosis, minority children, especially African-American and American Indian girls, face the greatest risk for weight-associated health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that obese children and adolescents are more likely to become obese as adults. These adults face other ailments related to obesity such as coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer. In some cases, obesity is even linked with premature death. In fact, according to an article published in the journal of the American Medical Association, obesity is the cause of over 100,000 deaths each year in the United States.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, is the first of its kind to document declines in overweight and obesity since 2005 among most boys and white girls. The authors note however, that “the encouraging first signs of a decline in the obesity epidemic demonstrated in this study are tempered by concerns about increasing disparities.”
Researchers say the data should serve as a new call to action — one that requires aggressive public health efforts specifically focused on high-risk groups. They believe dedicating the first wave of resources to improving the weight-status of black and American Indian girls is essential to both reducing childhood obesity and addressing alarming health disparities.
First Lady Michelle Obama aims to solve the problem of childhood obesity crisis within a generation. She hopes to minimize the rate of pediatric obesity to 5 percent by 2030 with her Let’s Move initiatives. According to White House Task Force Report on Childhood Obesity, targeted strategies focused on minorities with elevated obesity risk have been identified as key areas for future research — an approach the study’s authors believe is integral to reversing the epidemic.
Based on previous studies, the authors also recommend investigating early childhood intervention as well as school and after-school based programs as tools for reducing the prevalence of high BMI in minority populations of high obesity risk.