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Plateau But No Decline: Child Obesity Rates Hold Steady

A child runs a shopping cart relay during an Education Department summer enrichment event, "Let's Read, Let's Move." The 2012 event was part of a summer initiative to engage youths in summer reading and physical activity, and provide them information about healthy, affordable food. Many efforts underway are aimed at getting people to think anew about their daily habits.

When it comes to reversing the obesity epidemic, there have been glimmers of hope that the U.S. might be making headway, especially with young children.

For instance, back in 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented declines in obesity rates among low-income preschoolers in many states. And case studies in cities including Kearney, Neb., Vance, N.C., and New York , N.Y., have reported progress, too.

But a new study published in the journal Obesity concludes that — though the prevalence of obesity among U.S. children has plateaued in recent years — there is no indication of a national decline.

"If you look at the long-term from 1999 to 2014, we see a pretty consistent increase in obesity across all-aged children," says study author Asheley Cockrell Skinner, a researcher at the Duke Clinical Research Institute at Duke University. And she points to a continued increase in the rate of severe, or morbid, obesity among teens, which rose from 6 percent in 1999 to about 10 percent in 2014.

According to the study, which is based on NHANES data — a nationally representative survey and study on nutrition and health — 33 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight, and 17 percent are obese. Skinner says the estimates are reliable, in part because of the way the data is collected. Health professionals weigh and measure the kids who participate in the study, so researchers are not relying on self-reports from parents.

The study echoes findings from last November, when the CDC released numbers pointing to the stubborn rate of obesity among U.S. adults.

Skinner says she hopes these findings don't overshadow the success stories out there. Certainly, there are many promising efforts aimed at helping people make healthier choices. There's also more attention on preventing obesity among primary care doctors and pediatricians.

"If we take a multi-pronged approach, we may start to see some declines," says Skinner. But so far, she says these messages — and public health interventions aimed at helping — "are not reaching everybody."

Experts say a multi-pronged approach is needed to reverse the epidemic, and there are many efforts underway that show promise in nudging Americans' lifestyle choices in a healthier direction.

As we've reported, there's been an increase in the number of moms breastfeeding their infants as the results of support programs in hospitals nationwide. These efforts may lower the risk of obesity. And the overhaul of school lunch has shown promise in promoting better eating habits.

And municipalities, health providers and employers across the country have introduced all sorts of initiatives to encourage healthier lifestyles. Some doctors are even prescribing fruits and vegetables for their patients.

Also, as we reported back in 2013, pediatricians say they're much more assertive about obesity-prevention efforts than they were a decade ago. "It used to be a very awkward, embarrassing conversation to have [with overweight families]," Dr. Margaret Desler, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente, told us in 2013.

But that's changing. Desler told us she charted kids' body mass indexes, or BMIs, at every visit and talked with patients and their families about their eating and exercise habits. "It just opens up communication lines," Desler said.

So there are lots of efforts underway aimed at getting people to think anew about their daily habits. As Dr. Tom Robinson at Stanford University told us in 2013, "small changes can magnify into large improvements in health" over time.

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