Frequently Asked Questions About Childhood Obesity and Advocacy

What is the current prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States?
Answer: According to the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH), 31.6% of children ages 10-17 are considered overweight or obese. From state to state, however, these numbers vary dramatically.  States like Utah and Minnesota have a lower prevalence with 23.1% percent of children considered overweight or obese. In Mississippi, on the other hand, almost 45% of all children are considered either overweight or obese.

Has the prevalence of childhood obesity been growing over the years?

Answer: Over the past 30 years the prevalence of childhood obesity has risen dramatically. However, over the past decade the US has experienced a leveling off of prevalence of childhood obesity – in 2003 the NSCH reported an obesity prevalence of 30.6%. By 2007, however, the prevalence had only been raised by one percentage point to 31.6%. Unfortunately, however, the disparities in health between ethnicities is still quite large. While white children have benefited from the nation-wide prevalence leveling, the rates of childhood obesity amongst Hispanic and African American populations has continued to increase. Living below 100% of poverty also has detrimental effects on obesity prevalence with 44.8% of these children measured as overweight or obese.  

Why has the prevalence changed so drastically?

Answer: Childhood obesity is a societal issue with many socioeconomic and developmental factors playing into its increase in prevalence over the past 30 years. Access to healthy food has diminished greatly with many urban areas sprawling and separated from healthy eating establishments. Diets are fattier and larger, families eat out more often, and healthy food has risen in price while unhealthy food prices have dropped. Safety concerns have prevented children from playing in the streets or walking to school. Budgets have been cut  and with them, compulsory physical education, recess, and healthy foods in schools.

My child still has his baby fat. Isn’t it okay for kids to be a bit chubby when young?

Answer: Children grow and change at different paces and it is common for children to experience weight gain and loss as they go through spurts in growth.  For this reason, obesity and overweight designations in children are often categorized not by BMI but by percentile. Children in the 85th percentile or higher are considered overweight while children in the 95th percentile or higher are considered obese. Your pediatrician or other primary healthcare provider can help you and your child determine whether he or she is at a safe weight given his or her age and height.

Why is advocacy so important for healthcare professionals?

Answer: Working with individual patients in a clinical setting can certainly help children. However, with the numerous societal variables impacting a child’s health, well visits are only a portion of the battle. Much like cigarette cessation, childhood obesity will best be curbed through changes to our environment, converting our landscape from one that is toxic to one that is healthy.

Can ordinary healthcare professionals really make an impact?

Answer: Healthcare professionals can make an impact and can do so through a variety of time and community investments. One-on-one time in the clinic with patients is and will always be an excellent way to help children and their families with their individual struggles with childhood obesity. However, healthcare professionals are also trusted members of the community. When healthcare providers speak, policy makers, PTAs, Health Departments, and public officials listen. Moreover, healthcare professionals are uniquely tuned into the current wellness of their community, having gained an intimate knowledge of the health landscape through clinical and community work. By utilizing your voice as a healthcare provider, you are not only able to express a unique point of view, but you are able to do so with  knowledge few other people are able to gather regarding your community. Through advocacy work, you are able to greatly amplify your impact, by effecting the lives of not just your patients but the children within your entire community.

What are states already doing to make a difference? 

Answer: There are many state and local policies with purpose towards reversing the trend of childhood obesity. F as in Fat, Published by Trust for America’s Health has documented many of the state-wide initiatives being implemented across the US with policies ranging from menu labeling law (currently on the books in only two states) to snack/soda taxes currently on the books in 29 states. Additionally, numerous communities have implemented smaller-scale policies regarding soda machines and deep fryers in schools or snacks provided at after school activities.

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