New data published in JAMA today finds that there has been no significant change in rates of overweight/obesity overall for children between age 2 to 19 years of age since 2003. This is unfortunate news in the big fight against overweight and obesity. Conclusions from the study, “Obesity prevalence remains high and thus it is important to continue surveillance.” Obesity rates remain high at with 17% of children and more than 1/3 of adults.

The good news is that there was improvement in one small group, toddlers age 2 to 5. Numbers from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey(NHANES) show reductions in overweight and obesity for the preschoolers by as much as 43% during the last decade. Really hoping this is a canary in a coal mine situation — perhaps they’re chirping a clue. Learning the “why” behind the reduction in obesity for preschoolers feels like a huge opportunity. However for the mass of people researched in total (over 9,000 from birth to age > 60 years) the data confirms we’re not done tipping the scales.

The research article evaluated rates of overweight and obesity between 2003-04 NHANES data and 2011-12 data on children and adults. The CDC is highlighting the success in the toddlers, stating:

While the precise reasons for the decline in obesity among 2 to 5 year olds are not clear, many child care centers have started to improve their nutrition and physical activity standards over the past few years.  In addition, CDC data show decreases in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages among youth in recent years. Another possible factor might be the improvement in breastfeeding rates in the United States, which is beneficial to staving off obesity in breastfed children.

It’s wonderful to see signs of improvement in the small population of children included in the NHANES data but this research article doesn’t investigate how the improvements were made and/if they are stable. More research will have to unfold. We’re all desperate — parents, pediatricians, public health experts — for solutions that work in not only curbing, but reversing the rates of overweight and obesity. This data can potentially focus the light on where we need to look to study cause and effect to determine possible success stories and strategies. Five quick tips for parents now:

5 Quick Tips For Parents To Avoid Overweight:

  1. Go In For Regular Care: Take your children in for their routine health checks annually. I’m not saying this to keep your pediatrician busy! :-) It’s recommended your baby see the pediatrician 11 times before the age of 2 and then every year thereafter for routine care. When at the visit get empowered by the data. Look at the growth chart alongside your pediatrician. Insist that the pediatrician, family doctor, or nurse practitioner explain the curve at which your child is growing and where they are in regards to overweight risk or obesity risk. For background info, here’s a 2 minute video explaining how to read a growth chart.
  2. Don’t Trust A Guess: Reality is, we’re imperfect in guessing where our children are on the growth chart. Recent data found, for example, that about 1/2 of parents to overweight children underestimated their weight problem. Knowing a child is at risk is the beginning of making changes at home and school to improve their health.
  3. Water! Don’t forget water is the only beverage children need for thirst. There has been a reduction in the amount of soda children drink over the last decade but some data suggest instead of soda, children may be offered juice, sports drinks, vitamin waters, and other calorie-filled, caffeine laden liquids. Children really should be offered water throughout the day — data even proves they like it! Here are tips from Harvard for making your school and after-school activities water friendly.
  4. Go Outside: Can’t say it enough and I certainly can’t say it as loudly and elegantly as Michele Obama has done but get outside and Move! My rule for my own family is go outside and be without a ceiling every single day. It’s rare that your children would get out side and just sit there. Something about nature just makes us want to run around.
  5. Big Changes, Big Stress? Don’t Wait: If your child has had significant changes to their eating or exercise habits, stress levels, anxiety levels or mood that is affecting how they eat or move don’t wait to go in and check in the with their nurse or physician. In my experience, rapid weight gain can occur at times of huge social stress or family change. Don’t wait 1 to 2 years to seek help if weight gain may be creeping in.