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Sep 20, 2013

More Children Severely Obese than Ever Before

Experts report that 4-6% of children are severely obese, and effective treatments are not well understood.

According to a scientific statement from the American Heart Association, more children are severely obese than ever before and numbers are on the rise. Most concerning is that few treatments have helped severely obese children achieve a healthy weight, so prognosis for these children is poor. To address this issue, experts reviewed the latest research on childhood obesity and here are their findings, published in the latest edition of the American Heart Association’s Circulation.

In the past, “severe obesity” has been defined in many different ways. Some experts used measures of body fat like waist circumference to define severe obesity, while others used body mass index (BMI)—a measure based on height and weight. After reviewing these various methods, experts agreed that severe obesity in children should be defined as having a BMI greater than 120% of the 95th percentile for their age and gender, or having a BMI greater than 35—whichever is lower. Although it sounds complicated, this definition will help standardize which children are considered obese vs. severely obese.

So using this definition, how common is severe obesity among adolescents? Studies indicate that anywhere from 4-6% of children between the ages of 2 and 19 are severely obese, and severe obesity is the fastest-growing subcategory of obesity in youth. However, risk varies by age, gender, race, and income. Severe obesity is less common among preschoolers vs. 6-19 year-olds and among boys vs. girls. It’s more common among children with low-income families and among Hispanic, Mexican American and African American youth. 

Not surprisingly, severe obesity poses both immediate and long-term health threats to children. On top of short-term risk for conditions like high blood pressure, sleep apnea, liver disease, diabetes and depression, children with severe obesity are much more likely to develop heart disease and other chronic diseases later in life. Researchers have tested a number of treatments to help children achieve a healthy weight and the most effective option appears to be bariatric surgery. However, much more research is needed to understand the long-term risks vs. benefits of this procedure when performed in severely obese children.

There’s no question that severe obesity is a serious concern among adolescents and experts hope that their paper will spark future research on the topic. Not only are efforts needed to prevent severe obesity, we also need effective treatments to improve the health of the children already suffering from this condition. The number of children living with severe obesity is on the rise and taking action to reverse this trend will help build the foundation for a healthier future.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How do I know if I'm overweight or obese?

  • There are a few easy ways to evaluate weight. First, you can use your height and weight to calculate your body mass index (BMI). A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is healthy, a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is overweight, and a BMI of 30 or greater is obese. And because BMI is not always a perfect assessment of weight, it is important to measure your waist circumference. A waist circumference greater than 35 inches for a woman and 40 inches for a man is overweight.
  • How does weight-loss surgery work?

  • There are a few types of weight-loss procedures available to help patients who are very overweight lose weight, including lap banding, gastric bypass and gastric sleeve. These surgeries limit the amount of food that you can ingest, and some also restrict the amount of food that your body can digest.

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