A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Childhood obesity rates continue national rise, but Kentucky’s percentage remains level


By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Nationally, childhood obesity rates are not declining and severe obesity rates are still rising, especially among minority children. However, in Kentucky, child obesity rates have remained stable and the rates of obesity for minority children are not rising.

“Understanding the ongoing trends in obesity is important for public health and policymakers,” lead researcher Asheley Skinner, who is with the Duke Clinical Research Institute, said in a news release. “Our study suggests that more than 4.5 million children and adolescents in the U.S. have severe obesity.”

The study, published in the journal Obesity, examined data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1999 and 2014 and found that 33.4 percent of children in the U.S. were overweight, meaning their body mass index (BMI) was above the 85th percentile for children their age. BMI levels estimate body fat based on height and weight.

State of Obesity Graph for children in Kentucky

In 2013-14, the study found that nearly 24 percent were obese, or above the 95th percentile, and that 2.4 percent were severely obese, or more than 140 percent of the 95th percentile.

The authors noted that the only statistical increase in child obesity since 2011 was found in those who were severely obese, which went up 2.1 percent, and this increase was most prevalent among African American and Latino children. The report also said that while there has been an increase in obesity in all age groups over the past 30 years, it “may be leveling off.”

It could be that this “leveling off” effect is happening in Kentucky, where more than one-third of children are either overweight or obese.

The State of Obesity report found that 18 percent of Kentucky’s high school students are obese, almost 20 percent of its 10- to 17- year olds are obese and 15.5 percent of its 2- to 4- year-olds from low-income families are obese. The report also shows that these rates have remained consistent for high school obesity since 2003, 10- to 17- year-olds since 2004 and the 2- to 4- year-olds since 2003.

The Kentucky Youth Risk Behavioral Survey also shows no overall statistical changes in obesity rates among Kentucky’s high-school students, including the state’s African American high school students, whose rates range from from 15.5 percent obese in 2005 to 19.1 percent in 2013, or its Hispanic high school students, whose obesity rates were 15.5 percent in 2007 and 18.8 percent in 2013, the only two years with available data.

These reports did not break down the different levels of obesity.

Studies have shown that children with severe obesity are at an increased risk for heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes and even cancer when compared to children who are only considered overweight or mildly obese, says the release.

Skinner said it is time to expand local interventions and to find new treatment approaches.

“Addressing obesity in children is going to require a true population health approach, combining efforts at individual, healthcare, community and policy levels,” she said in the release.

What is Kentucky doing about childhood obesity?

Kentucky’s schools, as community partners in the battle against childhood obesity, are working to combat it through both nutrition and movement initiatives.

For example, most public Kentucky schools participate in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that requires schools to provide healthier foods for their students; many schools participate in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which provides a daily fruit or vegetable snacks to every student in participating schools; and more than 80 Kentucky school districts participate in the National Farm-to-School program.

Jamie Sparks, the school health and physical education director for the Kentucky Department of Education, said in an e-mail to Kentucky Health News that Kentucky schools are working to get students more active through several initiatives.

Sparks pointed out several successes, including school partnerships with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation initiative; a partnership with Humana Vitality called Students with Active Role Models, which encourages teachers and school staff to earn Vitality points by leading physical activity with their students; and partnerships with an online program called GoNoodle, which increases physical activity time in the classroom.

In addition, Sparks said, “Kentucky ranks second in the percentage of public schools enrolled with Let’s Move Active Schools. We have hosted 10 Physical Activity Leader trainings in the past three years.”

But is that enough to make a difference?

Dr. Willian Dietz, author of an accompanying journal editorial, said there is a shortage of care-givers to treat obesity, noting that every primary care provider who takes care of children is likely to have about 50 pediatric patients with severe obesity in their practice. He also said that most of these providers aren’t trained to treat childhood obesity, nor are they compensated appropriately, if at all, to treat it.

“We need more effective, cost-efficient and standardized approaches and services to manage children with the most severe obesity. This research emphasizes the urgency with which we must develop and validate a reimbursable standard of care for severe obesity in children and adolescents,”Elsie Taveras, spokesperson for The Obesity Society, said in the release.

It should be noted that Dietz, who is the director of the Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at George Washington University, said in his editorial that other data shows obesity rates have declined in two- to five- year olds. He said that this doesn’t mean this study is incorrect because different time frames were used. “It all depends on how you look at it,” he said. He did, however, acknowledge that severe obesity is increasing among adolescents.

He said, “The authors’ observation that severe obesity has increased is of great concern, especially because children with severe obesity become adults with severe obesity.”

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.


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