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Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance
of childhood obesity. This epidemic is occurring in boys and girls in all 50 states, in younger children as well as in adolescents, across all socioeconomic strata, and among all ethnic groups—though specific subgroups, including African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians, are disproportionately affected (Ogden et al., 2002; Caballero et al., 2003). At a time when we have learned that excess weight has significant and troublesome health consequences, we nevertheless see our population, in general, and our children, in particular, gaining weight to a dangerous degree and at an alarming rate.
The increasing prevalence of childhood obesity throughout the United States has led policy makers to rank it as a critical public health threat for the 21st century (Koplan and Dietz, 1999; Mokdad et al., 1999, 2000; DHHS, 2001). Over the past three decades since the 1970s, the prevalence of childhood obesity (defined in this report as a gender- and age-specific body mass index [BMI] at or above the 95th percentile on the 2000 CDC BMI charts) has more than doubled for preschool children aged 2 to 5 years and adolescents aged 12 to 19 years, and it has more than tripled for children aged 6 to 11 years (see Chapter 2; Ogden et al., 2002). Approximately nine million American children over 6 years of age are already considered obese. These trends mirror a similar profound increase in U.S. adult obesity and co-morbidities over a comparable time frame, as well as a concurrent rise in the prevalence of childhood and adult obesity and related chronic diseases internationally, in developed and developing countries alike (WHO, 2002, 2003; Lobstein et al., 2004).
IMPLICATIONS FOR CHILDREN AND SOCIETY AT LARGE
Many of us consider our weight and height as personal statistics, primarily our own, and occasionally our physician’s concern. Our weight is something we approximate on forms and applications requiring this information. Body size has been a cosmetic issue rather than a health issue throughout most of human history, but scientific study has changed this view. One’s aesthetic preference for a lean versus a plump body type may be related to personal taste, cultural and social norms, and association of body type with wealth or well-being. However, the implications of a wholesale increase in BMIs are increasingly becoming a public health problem. Thus, we need to acknowledge the sensitive personal dimension of height and weight, while also viewing weight as a public health issue, especially as the weight levels of children, as a population, are proceeding on a harmful upward trajectory.
The as yet unabated epidemic of childhood obesity has significant ramifications for children’s physical health, both in the immediate and long term, given that obesity is linked to several chronic disease risks. In a