Childhood Obesity: Up, Down, or Sideways?

A significant contingent of public health officials and advocates really want to claim progress in turning back the rates of childhood obesity. And who can blame them?

So we get headlines like this quote from Tom Freiden, head of the CDC: “The tide has begin to turn for some kids in some states.” The trouble is, a hard look at the data only shows rates that have stabilized, not a clear trend of overall declines in childhood obesity.

A new study in Pediatrics is one that feeds us encouragement, finding that: “Public health efforts to improve the obesity-related behaviors of U.S. adolescents may be having some success.” Ronald Iannotti and Jing Wang analyzed self-reported data from a large sample of U.S. adolescents on BMI, and a host of behaviors associated with obesity risk. And they found stabilizing (not dropping) obesity rates and an increase in healthier behaviors.

With everyone looking for good news, we get headlines from the study like this: “Childhood Obesity Rates Could Be on the Decline.” It’s a nice thought, though it’s not what the findings were.

Adding to suggestions that childhood obesity rates are stabilizing (not declining) is a report from athenahealth’s network of data from approximately 15 million patients. They say:

In short, local declines in childhood obesity within the athenahealth network are occurring against a national backdrop where obesity rates are flat. If there is indeed a trend towards declining childhood obesity rates nationally, we are not seeing it at athenahealth practices.

It will be great if we get robust data that tells us childhood obesity is declining overall. But right now, all we’ve got when we look at broad populations are stabilizing rates. You must troll through the data if you want to find pockets of declines in particular populations.

Optimism is a good thing. “Yes we can” is a great mantra. “Yes we did” is a little premature.

Click here to read the study in Pediatrics and here to read the findings from the athenahealth network.

A Perfect Summer, photograph © Piulet / flickr

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