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The prevalence of overweight individuals has increased dramatically during the past two decades. Clearly, this is an issue that must be addressed by working with health care providers, families and the community. An individual with weight problems can face serious medical, emotional, and social consequences. Extra pounds can lead to or increase the risk of many medical conditions including heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes, not to mention low self esteem and social problems.

Obesity has become one of the most significant public health problems in the United States today. In fact, in January 2002, the U.S. Surgeon General declared childhood obesity a national epidemic.

Following are some facts regarding childhood obesity as well as some of the factors contributing to childhood obesity. On other pages in our "Kids: Growing Healthy, Growing Strong!" section, you will find information on how to encourage healthy nutritional behaviors, making healthier snack choices, and ways to support an active lifestyle as well as recipes and fun activities for children.

  • Obesity affects one in five children, ages 6-17, in the United States.
  • The prevalence of overweight children has more than doubled over the past two to three decades.
  • It has increased by 54% among 6 to 11 year olds and 18% of males and 25% of females 12-17 years old are obese.
  • Hispanic and African-American youth are more likely to be overweight than Caucasian youth, 56% and 41% respectively.
  • There appears to be a trend of obesity in African-American girls. The National Health and Nutrition examination survey conducted from 1988-1994 revealed that obesity has increased 40% in Caucasian girls, while the increase has been 150% in African American girls.
  • Overweight children are showing up in doctors' offices with adult health problems such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and Type II diabetes. Some show early-warning signs of heart disease.
  • Nationally, hospital costs related to childhood obesity have more than tripled in the past 20 years to $127 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Obesity related disease cost the US economy more than $100 billion every year.
    Sixty percent of overweight five to ten year olds already have at least one risk factor for heart disease.
  • The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that health care providers consider screening all obese children over the age of two for elevated cholesterol levels.
  • Habits that put adults at risk for CVD begin in the teens.
  • Approximately 60% of all Americans age 18 and older report that they are physically inactive.
  • It is estimated that approximately 35% of coronary heart disease mortality is due to physical inactivity.
  • The significance of this relationship lies in the fact that coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and in New York State.

Factors contributing to Childhood Obesity

Environmental and Family Influence

  • Excessive caloric intake
  • Poor food choices
  • Availability of high fat high sugar snacks and fast foods
  • Busy families with less time to prepare nutritious meals
  • Decrease physical activity/increase in sedentary activities such as watching television and playing video games.
  • Eating while watching TV
  • Increase in soft drink consumption
  • Increase in size of portions served

Decrease in Physical Activity & Increase in Sedentary Lifestyle

  • Fewer children enrolled in physical education classes. According to Catherine Macpherson, M.S., R.D., Illinois is the only state that requires P.E. be taken as a class through the 12th grade.
  • According to the YRBS, in 1991 42% of 9-12th graders had daily PE classes compared with 27% in 1997.
  • People are generally less active today in their leisure time.
  • More sedentary jobs
  • Fewer sidewalks
  • Unsafe neighborhoods so children are not allowed outside to play
  • Community structure in general such as living farther away from schools, work, etc so people must rely on cars and busses
  • Television - the average teenager has spent 3 years viewing television by the end of high school. We no longer even need to leave the couch to turn the channel!
  • According to Baylor College of Medicine, overweight children reported eating 50% of their dinner meals while watching television compared to just 35% by children who are not overweight
  • The average child sees 20,000 commercials a year, and many of these commercials are for unhealthy foods.