Scary news about childhood obesity

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

The latest data on childhood obesity was just released, and the news isn’t good.

A full 41.5% of 16-to-19-year-olds were overweight in 2015–2016, a jump from 36.7% just two years before. The numbers were even worse for girls in that age group: 47.9% of them were overweight, up from 35.6% in 2013–2014.

That’s not a good trend.

There was another worrisome trend among 2-to-5-year-olds, among whom 26% were overweight. If you look at the percentage that was not just overweight but obese, between 2013–2014 and 2015–2016, the percentage went from 9.3% to 13.7%.

The trend among the preschoolers is particularly worrisome, given that recent studies have found that if a child is overweight in preschool, chances are they are going to stay that way into adulthood. That’s the thing. There’s no such thing as “baby fat” anymore. Fat doesn’t go away as kids get older; it stays.

This has terrible implications for the future health of our children. Being obese as an adult is associated with poor health — and early death.

Rates of obesity were much higher among black and Hispanic children than they were in white and Asian children, which highlights part of what makes this so complicated and hard. Cultural and socioeconomic factors play a big role in obesity. While ultimately it comes down to diet and exercise, so very many factors influence what we eat and how active we are. Where we live (which impacts food availability and pricing, as well as available safe spaces for exercise), our income, advertising, availability of exercise opportunities, school programming and meals, daily routines — all of it comes to play in our weight and the weight of our children. There are many initiatives underway to help combat childhood obesity, but the problem is so big and complex that it’s hard for any individual initiative to do very much.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything, because we can. The one thing we all can do, and need to do, is take the problem seriously. There is no one solution that will help every child — but there is always something that can be done for each child, if parents and caregivers work hard at it and don’t give up.

Here is what all parents should do:

  • Know if your child is at a healthy weight. We use body mass index to help us figure this out. It’s a calculation that uses height and weight to come up with a number. For adults, a BMI between 19 and 25 is considered healthy. For children, instead of a number we use percentiles. Once a child’s BMI gets to the 85th percentile or higher, we consider the child to be overweight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has BMI calculators you can use.
  • If your child is overweight, don’t ignore it. Talk with your doctor. Make real changes, and stick with them. You should never make a child feel bad for being overweight, and you should never put a child on a strict diet unless your doctor tells you to. Small, simple changes like cutting out juice or soda, eating more fruits and vegetables and less processed foods, or limiting junk food, fast food, and sweets can make a big difference. And just as important…
  • Make sure your child is active. This applies to all children, regardless of their BMI. Habits learned in childhood last a lifetime, and exercise makes us healthier forever. Everyone can be active; there is always a way, even if it’s dancing in the kitchen or taking walks around the block. The recommendation is that children be active for an hour a day. The average child spends far more than that in front of a screen; if you swap out one screen hour for an exercise hour, you can literally change their life.
  • Shop for and serve healthy foods. This, too, applies to all children and families regardless of BMI. It’s an investment in everyone’s health.

If you aren’t sure how to do any of these, or if your efforts aren’t successful, talk to your doctor. Sometimes it just takes some brainstorming together to find the best path forward. Because that’s what this is about: the path forward for our children. We owe them the best path possible.


  1. Rachel

    When I was child in the early 1960’s my pediatrician was concerned about a trend in my weight gain, and that I was on the road to being overweight. He gave me (my mom) a list of foods to stay away from, and sent me home with the awareness that I was different than my sibs and needed to pay attention to what I ate. It was hard (we went out for ice cream, by 3 sibs got ice cream, and I had to get sherbet – yuck!). My younger brother immediately started calling me “fatty”, and the “bad food list” was taped to the fridge. The list even made it’s way to the fridge at my grandmother’s when we went there for the summer. So everyone knew about Rachel’s weight problem. A psychologist would have a ball today with evaluating how this was handled by my parents etc….totally inappropriate! But the upside is that yes, though I’ve struggled all my life with my LOVE for food and the constant task of keeping the pounds off, at 62 years my BMI is good, and I’m in great health. And I have my first doctor to thank. The best approach to this dilemma, since we know so much more today about good foods and healthy bodies, is to give doctors the green light with being kind and loving, BUT absolutely frank with their patients and their parents when they see trouble ahead, and how to address it. AND we should make it routine, along with childbirth classes, to educate pregnant women and expecting dads about their future child’s diet and how to shop for food for them, how much to feed them, exercise them, and educate them about good eating habits. I’m frankly shocked at the obesity epidemic I’m seeing all around me today; its out of control folks.

  2. azure

    That should read supported by the USDA during the Obama administration.

  3. azure when an well thought out effort is made (and funded), the childhood obesity rates decline. In my community (w/a significant number of low income children) the Extension service has offered free short classes in altering recipes to make their lower in fat (in more then one language), funds have been raised to support a program (now supported–at least during the Obama administration–but the USDA) that doubled Oregon Trail “dollars” if they were spent on fruit/veg at the weekly farmers’ market.

    Probably wouldn’t hurt if some of the schools in the district discovered they could “afford” to have phys ed classes more often, there were more sidewalks, and parents and children were able and willing to walk to some places. The county is rural, the towns are pretty small, but little attempt has been made (despite Oregon’s so-called “landuse planning) to make the towns “walkable” or safe & pleasant for getting around by walking or cycling–even though the weather is pretty mild for 5-6 months/year. The town planning always, always favors transport by personal motor vehicle (or small aircraft for the very well off–the local airport is better funded then sidewalks & bike lanes even though there are no commercial flights) over sidewalks, bike lanes, bike racks, etc.

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