How Has the Childhood Obesity Rate Changed in the Last 30 Years?


Child obesity is a modern-day epidemic. The last 30 years have been especially devastating as the percentage of obese children skyrocketed to more than double what it was in the 80s. Thousands of non-profits, communities, schools, and political leaders have taken notice and started working to reverse the damage; but it is no easy feat—America’s lifestyle has changed, and we must get to the root of the problem to change it all.

Statistics: Child obesity has been closely measured since the early 1980s and the data shows us just how serious the problem is. The rate of obesity in children ages 6-11 increased from 6.5 to 19.6 percent between the years 1980 and 2008. In just 28 years, obesity nearly tripled in all age groups under 18 years old. Between 16 to 33 percent of adolescents are now obese, meaning in certain parts of the United States one in three kids is obese. Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado all have a child and adolescent obesity rate of fewer than 10% while Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Delaware have a rate of over 20 percent. This data is from 2005-2007, but the numbers have moved in the wrong direction since then.

Risks and Affects: Obese kids are at risk for numerous health problems and diseases. Obesity-related medical problems include type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and disability. Diabetes is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States. With between 100,000-400,000 obesity-related deaths per year and an estimated healthcare expenditure of $117 billion, obesity has surpassed health-care costs related to smoking and drinking. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, joint problems, sleep apnea, and psychological/social problems are just the beginning of what an obese child can expect to deal with.

The causes and solutions to such a widespread epidemic are complex and run deeper than we’re able to cover in a brief blog post. However, we’ve described some of the main factors below to help you get a sense of the main issues surrounding this crisis.

Causes for obesity are vast, and often many different factors and special circumstances contribute. Below are just a few factors that can cause obesity:

  • Family Habits: Children are ten times more likely to be obese if both parents are obese. It isn’t always the family habits causing the children to be obese, but they can have a direct impact on the problem.
  • Food Choices: Fast food, vending machines, and the cheap snacks from the store are what kids have grown accustomed to and eat on a daily basis. Easy access to unhealthy food makes it easy for parents to feed their kids for cheap and also let the kids have what they want, but that doesn’t make it a healthy choice.
  • TV & Video Games: Studies have shown a direct correlation between the amount of TV watched and levels of obesity. The most obese adolescents are the ones who spent the most time in front of the television. Children today spend on average 25 percent of their day watching TV, playing video games, or spending time on the computer. For each additional hour a kid watches TV, they will probably consume 167 extra calories.
  • Fast Food: The American stereotype of eating too much fast food is backed up by several studies. Americans spent $6 billion on fast food in 1970 and $142 billion in 2006. Fast food is always easier and often cheaper than cooking healthy meals at home, which is why many American families eat out multiple times per week, sometimes every day.
  • Calorie Count: The poor food choices in combination with too much TV and video games have result in kids taking in more calories than they are burning every single day. That is the basic foundation of weight gain and must be reversed in order to keep our kids healthy.

Solutions for childhood obesity are also varied and are dependent on many different factors. Here are a few ideas for kick-starting a healthier lifestyle:

  • Physical Activity: Physical activity must increase to an hour per day just so kids can burn off the extra calories. Physical education programs at school have the potential to influence a kid’s perspective on exercise and sports, and families can enroll their children in after school sports. Even just taking the kids down to the park to toss a Frisbee will make an impact. Make moving fun, and your kids will learn to choose an active over sedentary lifestyle.
  • Healthier Choices: If you happen to be eating fast food, choose a healthier item on the menu with less calories, sugar, and simple carbohydrates. At home, ramp up the amount of vegetables and teach your kids to make their own healthy food choices. If the kids feel like they have a say in the decision, they will enjoy the cooking experience and be motivated to eat healthily. Schools must take out the junk food and replace it with healthy snacks and lunches to help in the fight against obesity.
  • Education and Participation: Health education at school, home, and in the community will teach the kids to make their own healthy decisions. School PE programs should focus on fun activities that everyone participates in. The community can promote healthy events and get the kids involved, the parents can teach the kids to cook, and kids can learn about the risks and benefits of a healthy versus poor diet. Safe parks to play in, safe bike trails, and community events like a trash clean-up get everyone on their feet and enjoying the great outdoors.