Reports of a Drop in Childhood Obesity Are Overblown

by Rachel Baker on March 31, 2014

Over at, Emily Oster questions whether or not the reports of a decrease in childhood obesity are overblown. Her training as an economist who specializes in health care stats gives her a unique perspective and she shares it with the rest of us.

It is no secret that the United States has a weight problem. Roughly 30 percent of American adults are clinically obese, or have a body mass index of at least 30. That’s more than 175 pounds for someone who’s 5 foot 4, the average height of an American woman; or more than 203 pounds for someone who’s 5 foot 9, the average height of an American man. Obesity is associated with a whole host of health issues — diabetes, sleep apnea, stroke, heart attack and on and on — meaning that for many of us, diet is the real killer.

Obesity rates have risen over time, especially in children. The disease we now refer to as Type 2 diabetes used to be called “adult-onset diabetes.” One of the main reasons for the name change is that the onset became increasingly common in children, caused by obesity.

With this backdrop, the headlines last month about declines in childhood obesity were remarkable and encouraging. Here’s how The New York Times described it: “Obesity Rate in Young Children Plummets 43% in a Decade.” This and other articles went on to describe a huge decrease — from 13.9 percent to 8.4 percent — in the obesity rate for children between the ages of 2 and 5. The articles cited all sorts of reasons for the drop, including that kids are drinking less soda and that more mothers are engaged in breastfeeding. First lady Michelle Obama’s push for kids to exercise more and eat healthier foods also got credit.

You could probably challenge all of these explanations, but as an economist trained in examining health care statistics, I was curious to answer a more basic question: Is this decline in childhood obesity real? Are toddlers in the U.S. any less obese than they were a decade ago?

Read the whole article here:

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