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Child Obesity Rates Going Up

Junk food intake is up, and many kids have few places to burn calories, studies find

TUESDAY, March 2 (HealthDay News) -- New research finds that the prevalence of obesity has grown in recent years among children aged 10 to 17, and certain kids are being especially hard hit.

And another study in the same journal points to a possible reason why: Kids are snacking on potato chips, candy and other fattening foods an average of almost three times per day.

The findings on obesity, which appear in the March issue of Health Affairs, are based on the U.S. National Survey of Children's Health.

The survey found that the obesity rate grew from 14.8 percent in 2003 to 16.4 percent in 2007. But the percentage of children who are simply overweight actually dropped a small amount -- from 15.7 percent to 15.3 percent.

"While combined overweight and obesity rates appear to be leveling off, our findings suggest a possible increase in the severity of the national childhood obesity epidemic, especially for certain subgroups of children and in certain states," principal investigator Christina Bethell, director of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative at Oregon Health & Science University, said in a news release from the the journal. "Nationally, one in three children is overweight or obese, but even in the states where the epidemic appears least threatening, nearly one in four children is affected, and that rises as high as one in every two for some groups of children in some states."

The study authors found that the highest rate of obesity and overweight combined was in Mississippi (44 percent) and lowest in Utah (23 percent). The rates for both conditions among poor children rose from 39.8 percent in 2003 to 44.8 percent in 2007; it was stable -- at about 22 percent -- among wealthier children and non-Hispanic children.

Obesity and overweight kids were more common in neighborhoods that lacked a park or recreation center, and in neighborhoods that parents didn't perceive as safe.

Snacking patterns may also be playing a big role in the pediatric obesity epidemic, according to the second study. Researchers Barry Popkin and Carmen Piernas, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, looked at data on more than 31,000 American children from 1977 to 2006.

They found that in 1977-1978, 74 percent of children aged 2 to 18 said they snacked on foods outside of regular mealtime, but by 2003-2006 that number had jumped to 98 percent. The biggest jump occurred with salty treats such as crackers or potato chips, but candy was a favorite snack as well.

Overall, kids consumed 168 more calories from snack foods in 2003-2006 compared to 1977-1978, and the increase was greatest among the very young -- those aged 2 to 6.

"Kids still eat three meals a day, but they're also loading up on high-calorie junk food that contains little or no nutritional value during these snacks," Popkin said in the news release.

He advised parents to limit snack-time to just once per day and turn to healthy alternatives such as apple slices, carrots and other fruits and vegetables.

More information

For more on children and obesity, visit the American Academy of Children & Adolescent Psychiatry.

-- Randy Dotinga

SOURCE: Health Affairs, news release, March 2, 2010

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