Obesity Rates: Are We There Yet?

Declarations that we’ve turned the corner on childhood obesity are easy to find these days. We hope it’s true. A report from Georgia is the latest in a series of reports suggesting that childhood obesity rates are down in many communities. Likewise, recent reports that the growth of obesity rates are slowing, particularly in women, are examples of many such stories over the past few years. But a new publication of data from Sweden illustrates why we should be cautious about declaring that we’ve reached our goal of arresting growth in this disease. The study shows that obesity rates stabilized there between 2002 and 2006, and have since resumed their increase.

Georgia saw a drop of five percent in childhood obesity rates for 2011, which were just released last week. That improvement was sufficient to take Georgia from number two among all states for childhood obesity rates, down to number 17.

Regarding recent reports on U.S. obesity rates, you can find both good news and bad news stories. Some reports highlight the growth of severe obesity. Others highlight a leveling off in the overall rate of obesity, especially in women.

The Swedish data, published in the April issue of the European Journal of Public Health, remind us that the problem there is not so severe as the U.S. problem. Rates stabilized there at about 10% in men and 8% in women. After 2006, they again began growing, reaching 12% in men and 10% in women by 2010.

All of the eagerness to know whether the rates are up, down, or sideways misses the point. What we really need to know is why obesity rates have grown to levels that are creating an unacceptable burden of chronic disease. All we have right now are good guesses. And our guesses about what might work to reverse the problem can barely be called good, despite all the puffery from well-intended people who think they have the answer.

The answer is a commitment to research on the scale that it took to make real progress against cancer — research that breaks new ground instead of rehashing what we already know about diet and exercise.

Until then, we’ll be like the dog out for a joy ride — no idea where we’re going or why. The only difference is we’re having less fun.

Click here to read more about childhood obesity rates in Georgia, click here and here to read more about U.S. obesity rates, and click here to read the study of stability and growth in obesity rates in Sweden.

Cool Ride image © Ludovic Bertron / Wikimedia

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