Obesity Rate Among Children Holds Steady

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Jacob Vreeland, 16, with his mom, Karen, makes weekly visits to Nationwide Children's Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition. Jacob was considered obese 18 months ago, but he has lost weight and now leads a healthier lifestyle.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)
Jacob Vreeland, 16, with his mom, Karen, makes weekly visits to Nationwide Children's Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition. Jacob was considered obese 18 months ago, but he has lost weight and now leads a healthier lifestyle.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)

The number of severely overweight children has increased exponentially since the 1980s. For years it did not seem as if there was an end in sight to the unhealthy trend. But there is good news . A recent study finds the number of kids becoming too heavy has leveled off. And as WOSU reports, some experts think a reversal in the trend is not far off.

One in three Ohio kids is overweight or obese. And for children and adolescents who live in rural communities the figures can exceed 50 percent.

That statistic should not necessarily startle you, although it might have 25 years ago. That’s when Dr. Amy Sternstein began practicing medicine.

“If you saw an obese child it was more likely that you would look very diligently for a genetic cause. And at this point in time the obesity and the overweight crisis is very common,” Sterstein said.

Dr. Sternstein works at The Wexner Medical Center at the Ohio State Univeristy and for the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Sternstein said as children grow and mature they’re supposed to gain weight, between five and eight pounds a year, maybe 10, depending on the child’s height.

“But what we have seen, unfortunately, is it’s been more steadily increases 15, 20 pounds per year. And so over time of course you’ve accumulated a lot of excess weight,” Sternstein said.

And those children will not necessarily lose the excess weight as they become teenagers.

“Now we’re seeing very good substantial research that’s showing that if you are overweight or obese at a very young age, even as young as toddlers and pre-schoolers, that that weight is persistent weight and you will not quote un quote “grow out” of the overweight status,” Sternstein said.

But the obesity trend could be changing. A report released by The Journal of the American Medical Association finds the increases appear to have plateaued.

The report measured the body mass indices, or BMI, of children ages two to 19 years over the course of a decade. And from 1999 to 2010 the BMI rates were steady. Most age groups had slight increases.

Dr. Ihuoma Eneli directs Children’s Hospital’s Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition. Dr. Eneli credits efforts at decreasing childhood obesity over the last five years.

“While we cannot point at a specific intervention, I think it’s the sum of the intervention that we have at the school system, at a public health level, in the community, in the health care field, in just increasing awareness in what it means to have a healthy lifestyle,” Eneli said.

Jacob Vreeland, 16, is one of those kids who has benefited from the increased awareness. Jacob was one of nearly 2,000 kids seen at Children’s healthy weight center last year. When he was eight, his pediatrician noticed he was gaining more weight than he should for a kid his height and age. By the time Jacob turned 14 he was 5’10” and 270 pounds. That’s considered obese.

“I mean, just to put it plain and simple it kind of sucked; because your friends were out there and they were having fun playing soccer and basketball, and I could try and go play, but I definitely get picked first for the teams. And it was definitely harder to play. And I could never score,” he said.

The good news, Dr. Amy Sternstein said, is young people have an advantage over adults when it comes to weight loss.

“Often times children may not lose weight, but they may stabilize their weight. So they’re no longer gaining the excessive weight. And as they stabilize their weight and you couple that with height growth you actually end up with a very different physique over time,” Sternstein said.

It’s been 18 months since Jacob began the program at Children’s. Instead of going home and watching TV all afternoon, Jacob is more active. His family eats healthier. No more fast food. And Jacob’s physique is different. He’s taller at 6’2”, and he’s down to 240 pounds.

“I still want to lose more weight because I want to run a full mile without stopping really. And so I haven’t quite got there, but that is one of my big goals. And also I want to get below 200 pounds,” Jacob said.

Dr. Ihuoma Eneli said more families like Jacob’s are seeking help for their overweight children. And with more people adopting healthier lifestyles, Dr. Eneli expects to see obesity rates start to fall.

“I would like to see a decline within the next five years, and I don’t think that would be too outrageous to expect,” Eneli said.

But Dr. Eneli warns the fight is not over. She said while stats are encouraging, Eneli said the number of children who are morbidly obese has increased more rapidly than any other group.

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