Comprehensive Obesity Prevention in Early Childhood: Promising Federal and State Initiatives

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This is an excerpt from the full report.

The prevalence of obese and overweight children in the United States has nearly tripled during the past 30 years. In 2010, approximately 17 percent of all children and adolescents (ages 2-19) were obese (BMI is in the 95th percentile or above). The number of obese children within each age group has also increased. Among preschool children aged 2 to 5, obesity increased from five percent to 10.4 percent between 1976-1980 and 2007-2008; from 6.5 percent to 19.6 percent among those aged 6 to 11; and among adolescents aged 12 to 19, obesity increased from five percent to 18.1 percent during the same period. Being obese or overweight is harmful for a child’s short-term and long-term development. Obese and overweight children are more likely to be sick more often, perform more poorly in school, have poorer emotional wellbeing, and are at greater risk for chronic health problems than children who are not obese or overweight. Childhood obesity can also lead to an array of health problems later in life including a higher risk of being an obese adult. Without concerted interventions to reduce childhood obesity, the life expectancy for today’s children will be shorter than that of their parents.

Even the nation’s youngest children are at risk for obesity. Approximately one of every four children ages 2 to 5 years in the United States has a high (>85th percentile) body mass index and about one in 10 is obese (>95th percentile). The increased number of obese and overweight children under 5 suggests that obesity prevention should occur early in life to be the most effective. Research indicates that food intake patterns are established in early childhood, predict a child’s eating habits as an adult, and have long-term effects on health and metabolism. Likewise, evidence suggests that higher levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of excessive weight gain over time in younger children. Parents and caregivers of young children, therefore, play a large role in helping children form healthy eating and physical activity habits.

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