Controversy Over Childhood Obesity Statistics

April 21, 2014
Jeannette Y. Wick, RPh, MBA, FASCP

Researchers from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine are contesting a February 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that indicated childhood obesity is stabilizing and has dropped 43% among 2- to 5-year-olds.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine are contesting a February 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that indicated childhood obesity is stabilizing and has dropped 43% among 2- to 5-year-olds. The current work, which was published online April 7, 2014, in JAMA Pediatrics, found obesity in US children has increased over the last 14 years.

The UNC researchers analyzed data extracted from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1999 to 2012 that included 26,690 children aged between 2-19 years. They categorized obesity into 4 classes:

  • Overweight—Body mass index (BMI) ≥ the 85th percentile for age and sex
  • Class 1 obesity—BMI ≥ the 95th percentile
  • Class 2 obesity—BMI >120% of the 95th percentile
  • Class 3 obesity—BMI >140% of the 95th percentile

The study determined 17.3% of US children were obese between 2011-2012, while 5.9% met criteria for Class 2 obesity, and 2.1% met criteria for Class 3 obesity. It also documented an upward trend in Class 2 and Class 3 obesity among children.

Both the current study and the CDC’s used NHANES data, although the CDC limited its data to 2002 to 2012, while this study examined all available data from 1999 to 2012. The UNC researchers identified an unusual increase in obesity among young children in 2003, which they believed created a false appearance of significant decline in the CDC’s February 2014 study.

Whether the rate of childhood obesity is stabilizing or declining is moot, because a rate of 17% is too high, the UNC researchers said. They emphasized the same message public health advisors have broadcast for years, which involves the need to promote environments that encourage activity and healthy diets for all children, regardless of BMI. Interventions that allow families to live healthier lives every day with minimal inconvenience are most likely to address the obesity epidemic effectively.