Rate of Severe Obesity in Kids Is Rising Again

By   |  December 19, 2023

By Dennis Thompson HealthDay Reporter  |  Copyright © 2023 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

MONDAY, Dec. 18, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Severe obesity appears to be on the rise among young U.S. children, based on data from a federal supplemental nutrition program.

About 2% of children between 2 and 4 years of age in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program were severely obese by 2020, a new study reports. That's about 33,000 of the more than 1.6 million kids in the program.

The data dashes hopes that progress had been made within the program against severe obesity, which is defined as a BMI that’s either above 35 or at least 20% greater than that of the heaviest 5% of kids, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). BMI is short for body mass index, an estimate of body fat based on height and weight.

Severe obesity among WIC kids had dropped to 1.8% in 2016 from 2.1% in 2010, according to findings published Dec. 18 in the journal Pediatrics.

This jibes with other studies that have noted an uptick in severe obesity among young kids, as high as 2.9% of 2- to 4-year-olds in 2018, the researchers said in background notes.

“We were doing well and now we see this upward trend,” researcher Heidi Blanck, chief of the CDC’s Obesity Prevention and Control Branch, told the Associated Press. “We are dismayed at seeing these findings.”

In all, 20 states saw significant increases in the percentage of young children with severe obesity.

California had the largest increase in severely obese WIC kids, with an adjusted percentage point increase of 0.54 between 2016 and 2020. Others included Texas (up 0.45); Georgia (up 0.4); New Jersey (0.39); Washington (0.38); and Hawaii (0.37).

Hispanic kids had the largest significant increase, with their rates of severe obesity going up 0.41 adjusted percentage points. Asian/Pacific Islander children saw an increase of 0.28; and Black children, 0.13.

Children with severe obesity are at greater risk of dying young or developing health problems like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease, the researchers noted.

More than 20% of kids in the U.S. received WIC benefits in 2019, researchers said. The program provides healthy foods and nutrition education to millions of low-income pregnant women, mothers and children younger than 5.

The increase in severe obesity occurred despite changes to the program in 2009 that provided extra cash allowances for healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, along with reduced allowances for milk, cheese and juice, researchers said.

These changes have been found in other studies to improve the diets of WIC kids, but these researchers noted that the program varies from state to state in ways that could affect their effectiveness.

“The daily hardships that families living in poverty are facing may be harder today than they were 10 years ago, and the slight increases in the WIC package just weren’t enough,”  Dr. Sarah Armstrong, a childhood obesity researcher at Duke University in Durham, N.C., told the AP.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on childhood obesity.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, Dec. 18, 2023; Associated Press, Dec. 18, 2023