Skip to main content.

Youth obesity rates holds steady, even as youngest make gains

Youth obesity rates holds steady, even as youngest make gains

Picture of Ryan White
Less than a quarter of kids get the recommended 60 minutes of exercise a day.
Less than a quarter of kids get the recommended 60 minutes of exercise a day.

Earlier this year, news broke of a welcome respite from three decades of depressing news on childhood obesity.

Among 2- to 5-year-olds, obesity rates dropped 43 percent from 2003 to 2012, according to federal health survey data. And that encouraging finding was on top of a report from 2013 that found obesity rates among low-income preschoolers fell in 19 states and U.S. territories from 2008 through 2011.

Those are two very encouraging pieces of news for the struggle to curtail childhood obesity rates, which have more than tripled since 1980. The fact that gains are being seen among such young children is particularly heartening, since overweight or obese preschoolers are five times more likely to grow into overweight or obese adults, according to the CDC.

But those early childhood decreases are only part of the picture, as a recent report jointly issued by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the Trust for America’s Health makes clear. The report finds that while some groups have indeed experienced decreases, overall childhood obesity rates have held steady since 2003. The good news is that the rates have stabilized and are not rising. The bad news is that the rates have stabilized and are not dropping.

The report also documents the persistence of some glaring racial and geographic disparities, with minority children and kids and teens in the South suffering from obesity at much higher rates than their peers elsewhere.

First, the big picture view: Overall, about 17 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are obese. When overweight children are added to the mix, the figure rises to 32 percent.

But when those figures are broken down by racial group, the disparities stand out: 22.4 percent of Latinos ages 2 to 19 are obese, 20.2 percent of black youth and 14.3 percent of whites. Among that same age group, black boys are three times as likely to be severely obese (10.1 percent) as white boys (3.3 percent).

Gaps emerge along geographic lines as well. Of the top 10 states with the highest rates of obesity among 10- to 17-year-olds, seven are in the South. Mississippi leads the nation among this age group, with a 21.7 percent youth obesity rate, while Oregon takes top honors at the other end of the spectrum, at 9.9 percent.

Since obesity is a major risk factor for diabetes, it’s not surprising that the southern states lead in the nation in rates of type 2 diabetes, which is on the rise among youth. In youth under 19, type 2 diabetes increased a whopping 31 percent from 2001 to 2009, according to the report.

Where do we go from here? The policy recommendations in the report will all sound familiar:

Increase physical activity before, during and after school; offer nutritious food and beverages at school; make healthy, affordable food prevalent in all communities; ensure healthy food and beverage marketing practices; engage health care professionals to more effectively prevent obesity both within and outside the clinic walls, in collaboration with community partners; and intensify our focus on prevention in early childhood.

One might think we should just isolate what’s responsible for the obesity decreases among young children and build on those successes. But as the New York Times’ Sabrina Tavernise reported earlier this year, even experts can’t agree on what’s working. “There was little consensus on why the decline might be happening, but many theories,” she wrote.

Those theories include fewer calories from sugary drinks, more breastfeeding and families buying healthier food due to changes in the food stamp program. Or perhaps it’s the collective impact of a bunch of different policies and programs targeting obesity through fitness and healthier eating.

Most agree that getting kids to exercise more is essential, but doing so is an enduring challenge. Experts recommend about 60 minutes of physical activity a day, but a report released this spring found only about a quarter of kids 6 to 15 met that benchmark. P.E. standards issued by states tend to be lightly or unevenly enforced.

Where kids live can matter as well. A study published in March found that counties with more access to nature trails and public forests tended to have more active kids and lower rates of obesity. That, of course, is of little help to inner-city kids who lack easy access to safe outdoor areas, let alone natural lands. A 2012 research brief found that the kids at greatest risk for obesity are least likely to have school recess.

Healthy eating is the other half of the equation, and for policy makers, perhaps the easiest point of entry when it comes to improving kids’ nutrition. According to the RWJF report:

Children and teens in states with strong laws restricting the sale of unhealthy snack foods and beverages in school gained less weight over a three-year period than those living in states with no such policies.

Stricter school lunch requirements were ushered in by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, but the federal legislation came under attack in Congress in May. House Republicans and the School Nutrition Association sought to roll back or allow schools to opt out of the new standards, which call for healthier foods with more whole grains and less sodium.

First Lady Michelle Obama has championed the 2010 legislation and is now leading the battle to keep the healthier standards in place. The ongoing fight is expected to return to Congress this fall, but with the addition of 500 former military leaders backing up Obama’s defense of the tougher school rules.

Photo by Victoria Harjadi via Flickr. Graphic from RWJF/The State of Obesity: 2014.


Picture of

While changing legislation on what can be purchased through food stamps and dictating what schools can serve for lunches is a step in the right direction, the more important question is, are we educating parents and children as well on the dangers associated with obesity?

Picture of

If receiving food stamps is a big contributor, could limiting the user on which foods they can purchase with their food
stamps. Again another solution could be the excessive amounts if reduced, and explain how they can prepare filling and nutritious prepared food. More activity a day in school curriculum.At home involve the children in outdoor activity with family and peer groups and away from too many hours of TV..

Picture of

The real problem with overweight children is that there in most cases no recess in the schools, the children are not allowed to go outside to play, there used to be field trips at school where you went on hikes or had to do a lot of walking. They children had bowling alley's, skating rinks, all kinds of places to go to have fun. Now they cannot leave the house because both parents are working and the food that they buy has to be enough for everyone so they use a lot of rice or cheap pasta because that is all they can afford. Prices of food are outrageous. We have very few farms left that grow fresh vegetables in this county. We need more places for the children to play, parks, rinks, bowling alleys and set up special transportation just for children with or without their parents so they can go where ever they want locally and it should be government funded so they can go for free. We should tear down the old derelict houses that wind up as drug houses and clean up the area and let inner city people put in gardens that they can grow their own vegetables. There are a lot of things we as a society can do to help our children survive but we all would have to ban together to get it done.

Picture of

Child obesity is such a big problem. It sets a person up for diseases early in life. I think the solution has to be a composite one working from different angles. Sensible common sense solutions need to be followed through with despite pressure from lobbyist or other special interest groups. Furthermore, children need to be educated through the media they relate to the most in social networks, pop stars, etc... Exercise must be made to appear "cool".

Picture of

I have agreed with everything I have read. Child obesity is a struggle but we need to have less expensive health food and educate the parents and children. Have the children involved fixing the healthier food and go out as a family. Have the children be involved in building a community garden that they can learn how to grown and pick their own foods.

Picture of

I believe childhood obesity is driven by the cost of healthy food and accessibility. It is very easy to gain access to food with no nutrition value. It taste good and is quick. Problem is that it leads to obesity e subsequent other health issues.

Picture of

Healthy food doesn't have to be expensive. Vegetables are cheaper than meat, you can buy fresh produce at the price of processed ready-to-eat meals from the freezer section. We need to teach the parents healthy eating habits and include nutrition into the list of taught subjects at schools.

Picture of

I find the issue to be what food the parents have in the house, how often are they eating fast food? eating healthy is more expensive than junk food ,food stamps helps but they still can buy any type of food,with both parents working its about convenience when it comes to dinner time, Also limit TV time, video games, when I was a kid we were never inside we played outside till the street lights came on.

Picture of

We have changed our way of life through the years and how we as parents and the medical profession and general public dropped the ball for poor education on just eating in general. It's sad how we keep pushing the bad things in all reality no its wrong, and the outcome can be a matter of life and death. It's something to think about before its too late.

Picture of

I believe that schools should be educating both children and parents on healthy eating habits. If parents are unaware of nutrition, then they are probably unaware of the health problems that come with it later in life. For low income families on food stamps, they should be limited to what kind of foods they are able to buy. More fresh fruits and vegetables should be available to them for purchase.

Picture of

Where a child lives,financial status, and the watchful eye of a guardian all will contribute or help eliminate this large problem. A child needs to consume vegetables and fruits not starch and sugars. For people who cannot afford these food stamps should be given, however only for healthy foods. Schools need to find diverse ways to get children up and exercising. If space is the problem stretching and marching in place is better than nothing. All in all action should be taken to help all children to a slimmer future to insure better health.

Picture of

I believe childhood obesity prevention begins at home. Parents need to introduce their kids from babies to healthy foods, and as they start growing talk to the children as to why they need to eat fruits and vegetables and healthier meats like Turkey and Chicken. If they hear it over and over again, they will understand more and more as they grow up what is a healthy choice of food. It's not just the bullying toward obese kids but it's the high blood pressure and diabetes, these are real health issues that are occurring. As parents we need to stop and find the time to make a healthy meal and stop buying fast food cause were to tired or lazy to cook at home. I'm guilty also, but lately I've been passing up the fast food for healthier choices, this not only helps for health reasons but also saves me money. And lastely - exercise - this is so important, even it's a walk around the block or playing ball outside, kids need to learn to be away from the TV and social media and get their bodies moving. It's a tough job but as parents we need to do our best, we have to try.


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.


Follow Us



CHJ Icon