Childhood obesity rates in the United States have leveled off after decades of increases, according to a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Analysts say the study, which found no significant increases in the prevalence of high body mass index (BMI) in U.S. children and adolescents between 1999 and 2006, shows individuals’ personal decisions are more effective than government regulation at solving such problems.
The study examined a sample of 8,165 children and adolescents from the 2003-2004 and 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and found no significant increases in high BMI among U.S. children, and no significant changes between 1999 and 2006.
BMI is the measure of an individual’s body/mass ratio, determined in this study by comparing the height and weight statistics of various representative populations.
Prosperity Increases Obesity Rates
Analysts caution against panicking over obesity rates or using them as a proxy for overall health.
“Despite obesity, our life expectancy has increased dramatically in the last century. Given our current lifestyles, a higher level of obesity than existed in the good old days may be unavoidable for most Americans,” said John R. Graham, director of health care studies at the Pacific Research Institute.
“Obesity rates typically rise as a nation’s standard of living increases, and our society is becoming more aware of problems associated with rising obesity,” noted Devon Herrick, Ph.D., a senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis.
Increases Have Stopped
The JAMA study suggests the United States may have reached the end of a decades-long increase in obesity rates in children, often attributed to increases in standards of living and the prevalence of less-healthy foods and less-active lifestyles.
“Although I do not see U.S. schoolchildren returning to the weights typically seen a generation ago, hopefully we have slowed the rate of growth,” said Herrick.
Graham urged caution in considering the results of the study, recommending people take with a grain of salt any conclusions drawn from it. He argues the results of the study should be considered neither a fully accurate picture of the obesity problem, nor a prescription for how the issue should be dealt with politically.
Rates Still Relatively High
While the study shows a leveling off of obesity rates, the percentage of children sampled who were found to have a BMI that would classify them as “overweight,” “obese,” or “morbidly obese” was still 30 percent. Graham and other experts caution that the numbers from this or any other study on obesity should not be used as an excuse for government intervention.
“I would never recommend using only one study to conclude that the trend in obesity is changing,” said Graham. “On the other hand, I also do not think we should allow governments to use these statistics to further interfere in our lives.”
Government Intervention Unnecessary
The federal government often has considered legislation aimed at combating what was perceived as an ongoing obesity epidemic.
This year Congress will consider the Strengthening Physical Education Act (HR 1224) and the Eat Healthy America Act (HR 1600), as well as several other bills aimed at legislating healthy behavior and reducing the percentage of Americans classified as obese.
Graham warns these policies are unnecessary and could even be harmful if people fail to take personal accountability when dealing with childhood obesity.
“Constant drumbeats of information about how many pounds we’re gaining or losing simply encourage governments to ‘do something about it’ with little hope of success and many unintended consequences,” Graham said.
For more information …
“High Body Mass Index for Age Among US Children and Adolescents, 2003-2006,” Journal of the American Medical Association, May 28, 2008: http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/299/20/2401