U.S. Child Obesity Rates Actually Just as Unnerving as 10 Years Ago

A new report says there have been no significant changes in prevalence of obesity in the last decade.
(Sesame Workshop/AP)

"I am sorry sir, cookies are not a healthy choice," Grover said to Cookie Monster, a stern consternation eclipsing his Muppet eyes, in a Sesame Street book released last year. Despite cultural changes like the taming of Cookie Monster, which have been tough to miss, the newest numbers about U.S. obesity trends in the last ten years don't look great. They just made big news after a press statement by the CDC director and other officials, and the analysis will be published tomorrow morning in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The headlines just published in the last hour could be misleading or unduly triumphant:

Wall Street Journal: "U.S. Childhood Obesity Rates on the Decline"

The New York Times: "Obesity Rate for Young Children Plummets 43 percent in a Decade"

"We continue to see signs that, for some children in this country, the scales are tipping," CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a press statement, having a little fun with "scales" there. "This confirms that at least for kids, we can turn the tide and begin to reverse the obesity epidemic."

Michelle Obama said, "I am thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years in obesity rates among our youngest Americans."

It's true that there was a substantial decrease in the obesity rate among a small age group, kids ages two to five. It fell from 14 to 8 percent (the aforementioned 43 percent). But rates among teenagers increased, and overall rates did not change; they just plateaued.

CDC/Hamblin

Lest we be lulled into the complacency that once allowed our cartoon characters to enjoy cookies without being reprimanded by their friends, best to consider that the actual conclusion of the study is that 17 percent of kids and more than one third of adults in the U.S. remain obese, and in the last ten years, the final line of the study says:

"Overall, there have been no significant changes in obesity prevalence in youth or adults."

At best we celebrate with cautious optimism over something of a leveling off. It's not worse than it was, but it's far from good.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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