The number of seriously overweight children and adolescents in the United States has more than doubled during the past three decades, with most of the increase occurring since 1980, according to the latest government figures.
Results of the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES-III), released today by the National Center for Health Statistics, show that 4.7 million American youths age 6 through 17 are severely overweight. That is 11 percent of children in that age group, more than twice the 5 percent rate observed in the 1960s.
“No matter how we define it, we see the same pattern in children that we’ve seen in adults over the same time period,” said Richard Troiano, an NCHS epidemiologist and lead author of a study on the findings that will appear in this month’s Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
Experts believe that American children are probably ballooning for the same reasons that their parents are. Studies by Tufts University researcher William Dietz and others suggest that physical inactivity - largely due to television, video games and personal computers - conspires with too much munching of high-calorie foods to add unwanted pounds.
The latest findings, presented at a science writers’ meeting in Miami Beach sponsored by the American Medical Association, suggest that excess weight is a problem facing all American children, regardless of sex, race or ethnic background.
“I’m not surprised by the increase, but I’m surprised by the degree of the increase,” said William J. Klish, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition. “It’s a very significant jump.”
The study - which examined a national sample of nearly 3,000 children and adolescents from 1988 to 1991 - found some of the steepest increases among African-American girls. For example, 16 percent of African-American girls age 6 to 11 fell into the heaviest groups, compared with 10 percent of white girls the same age and about 11 percent of all girls 6 to 11 years old in the study.
A similar trend was evident among African-American girls age 12 through 17. The study found that 14 percent of those girls in the heaviest category, compared with 8 percent of white girls the same age and 9 percent of all girls age 12 through 17 in the study.
Among boys, the study found that those at the lowest risk for being overweight were whites in the 6-to-11 age group and non-Hispanic blacks aged 12 through 17.
Defining overweight is particularly complicated in growing children, who can turn from pudgy to lanky in a matter of months depending on individual development.