PRINCETON, N.J. — Close to five million young people ages 10 to 17 have obesity, according to a new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (R.W.J.F.). The report, which is based off data from the 2017 and 2018 National Survey of Children’s Health, found the national childhood obesity rate remains around 15%.
The data also reinforce the persistence of disparities along geographic, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. The obesity rates among Black and Hispanic youth (22.2% and 19%, respectively) are significantly higher than white youth (11.8%) and Asian youth (7.3%). Close to 22% of youth living below the national poverty line have obesity, more than twice the amount of youth in households making at least 400% of the federal poverty level.
The report also found children in the south tend to be less healthy than children in other regions. More than a quarter of youth in Mississippi have obesity. Other states with higher-than-average childhood obesity rates include West Virginia, Kentucky and Louisiana. Utah topped the list of healthiest states, with a childhood obesity rate of 8.7%. Other states with lower-than-average childhood obesity levels include Minnesota, Alaska, Colorado, Montana and Washington.
“These new data show that this challenge touches the lives of far too many children in this country, and that Black and Hispanic youth are still at greater risk than their White and Asian peers,” said Richard Besser, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of R.W.J.F. “These differences by race, ethnicity and geography did not happen by chance. They are a result of discriminatory policies and systems that have been in place for decades.”
Obesity can put young people at a greater risk for several other diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. Research increasingly is showing the importance of preventing obesity early in life. One study found five-year-olds who were overweight were four times as likely as healthy-weight children to have obesity by age 14.
The last several years have brought about a handful of policy shifts, which have reduced obesity rates among some children. More than 30 million children eat healthier school breakfasts, lunches and snacks thanks to updated nutrition standards ushered in by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The obesity rate among children participating in WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, declined from 15.9% in 2010 to 13.9% in 2016. Researchers said updates to the food package, including the kinds of foods and beverages available for families to purchase, are one possible driver of declining rates.
“We have the power to change these outcomes and make our nation a more equitable society,” Dr. Besser said. “The more we understand the barriers to good health, the more we can do to address them.”
R.W.J.F.’s report also included a number of policy recommendations aimed at ensuring more children have consistent access to healthy foods early in life. Primary among these is rolling back proposed changes to the food stamps program that would cause millions of children to lose their benefits. Currently, one out of every three children ages 4 and younger participate in the program each month.
Other recommendations include maintaining nutrition standards for school meals that expired in December 2018 and providing resources to the Center for Disease Control to provide grants to all 50 states.