WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. childhood obesity epidemic leveled off this decade after surging for about 20 years, but a worrisome 16 percent of young people remain obese, risking serious health problems, researchers said on Tuesday.
Obesity rates remained essentially unchanged among boys and girls ages 2 to 19 from 1999 to 2006, researchers led by Cynthia Ogden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study found that 32 percent fit the government’s definition of being overweight, 16 percent fit the definition for obesity and 11 percent were extremely obese.
Childhood obesity rates had tripled in the two decades starting in 1980, Ogden said. Changes in diet — more fatty and sweetened foods — and less exercise helped fuel the trend.
“The prevalence is still very high. And so it’s not as if the problem is solved. But there is some reason for cautious optimism,” Ogden said in a telephone interview.
The study did not show any drop in childhood obesity. And it did further illustrate ongoing racial disparities.
Dr. David Ludwig, a childhood obesity expert at Children’s Hospital Boston, said it is too soon to know if the findings represent a mere temporary lull in a long-term upward trend or a true, enduring leveling off of an epidemic.
“This study is a glimmer of hope,” Ludwig said in a telephone interview, saying it might show that public health efforts to increase awareness of obesity may be paying off.
The researchers examined height and weight measurements for 8,165 people ages 2 to 19 taken in government surveys from 2003 through 2006, allowing them to calculate body mass index, or BMI, a measure of obesity.
They compared the data with numbers dating back to 1999, finding no statistically significant differences in rates.
Childhood and adult obesity has emerged as a growing problem not only in the United States but in many countries around the world.
Obese children are more likely to be saddled with risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, as well as type 2 diabetes. They also are at higher risk for asthma.
They also are much more likely to be obese in adulthood, when they may face the many health problems linked to obesity such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers.
The study illustrated ongoing ethnic and racial disparities.
It found that 17 percent of boys 2 to 19 overall were obese, but 23 percent of Mexican American boys were obese compared to 17 percent of blacks and 16 percent of whites. For girls, 16 percent were obese, including 24 percent of blacks, 19 percent of Mexican Americans and 14 percent of whites.
“Obesity is striking poor and minority children more severely than whites and wealthier populations,” said Ludwig, who wrote an editorial in the journal to accompany the study and had a book on the subject published last year.
The childhood obesity epidemic has been driven by significant changes in the U.S. diet dating back decades, with more fatty and sugary fast foods, snacks, processed foods and beverages and fewer fresh fruits and vegetables.
Many children also have become more sedentary, watching more TV, playing video games and getting less exercise.
Editing by Maggie Fox and Eric Walsh