We Aren’t Winning the Fight Against Obesity

New data show that increased public awareness and policy changes have not succeeded in lowering rates.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Apr 26, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The news in early 2014 was heartening, a rare bright spot in the steady, dismal drumbeat of statistics surrounding what seemed to be a nation increasingly on the losing side of the battle of the bulge. A headline in The New York Times proclaimed “Obesity Rate for Young Children Plummets 43% in a Decade,” with the article declaring that the numbers offered “the first clear evidence that America’s youngest children have turned a corner in the obesity epidemic.”

Not so fast.

Results of an analysis published today in the journal Obesity paint a decidedly different—and more alarming—picture. As the team of scientists, led by public-health researchers from Duke University, conclude: “There is no evidence of a decline in obesity prevalence in any age group, despite substantial clinical and policy efforts targeting the issue.”

The study, which was based on data collected from a large, biannual federal health and nutrition survey, found that the prevalence of obesity among children ages two to 19 has, at best, hit a plateau during the past few years, but the trend lines do not appear to be reversing. More troubling yet, the rate of children with severe obesity—roughly defined as a body mass index of 40 or above—appears to have increased nearly every year since 1999.

Addressing the numbers overall and what they seem to say about the crisis of childhood obesity in America, the study’s lead author, Asheley Cockrell Skinner, a researcher in the department of medicine at Duke, told Politico: “Maybe we’re seeing a leveling off, but we’re certainly not seeing a decline. If we assume that our goal out of policy is to reduce the prevalence [of childhood obesity], that’s a goal we’re not meeting.”

Indeed, that would seem somewhat surprising, what with any number of highly publicized initiatives specifically targeted to stem the crisis—the most notable of which has arguably been first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign and the commensurate revamping of federal policy to get schools to stop serving soda and other junk food to kids.

But it would be a mistake, the researchers argue, to conclude that such programs have failed. The prevalence of childhood obesity may very well have been even higher in the absence of targeted interventions. Yet, in the face of numbers that show more than a third of American children are overweight and more than 26 percent are obese—numbers that have hardly budged over the past decade, according to the most recent analysis—the most logical takeaway would seem to be that the U.S. isn’t doing enough to combat the crisis.

So what would a get-serious approach to fighting childhood obesity look like? For starters, how about adopting a national tax on sugar-sweetened beverages like the one implemented in Mexico? While the Supreme Court–sanctioned notion of “corporate free speech” makes it difficult to restrict junk food advertising in the U.S., surely we don’t need to subsidize it, right? We should eliminate the corporate tax write-off for ads that market unhealthy foods to kids. An analysis published last year by a team of leading public-health experts found both interventions were among the most cost-effective ways to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity while saving billions of dollars in health-care costs.

No doubt trying to implement such measures would provoke the full fury of the soda and junk-food industries, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. Children who are overweight or obese at three to five years old, for example, are five times as likely to be overweight or obese as adults—meaning that if we don’t double down on our efforts to fight the childhood obesity epidemic, we could be dealing with the fallout for decades.