Policy Priorities

Policy Priorities image of kids

Childhood Obesity

Today, nearly 1 in 3 children in America is overweight or obese.  Providing these children with access to quality health care and nutrition is cost-effective and can play an important role in their development.  The childhood obesity crisis affects millions of children.  Child obesity rates have tripled among school-aged children and adolescents over the past thirty years and are affecting children at younger and younger ages.    Nearly 32 percent of American children are overweight or obese.    

Minority and Low-Income Children

Minority and low-income children are disproportionately affected by childhood obesity.  Compared with White children, Hispanic children and Black children are more likely to be overweight or obese.

  • Overall, Black children and Hispanic children are more likely to be at risk for being overweight and obese than White children.  Research shows that one in five Black children ages 2 to 19 is obese, compared with approximately one in seven White children.
  • Clinic-based reports and regional data suggest that Black and Latino children are more likely to be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, a disease strongly associated with being overweight and obese.
  • Almost 45 percent of overweight or obese children ages 10 to 17 are poor*. 

Lifestyle

Children’s lifestyles contribute to high rates of childhood obesity.  Children need a healthy diet and regular physical activity to support optimal growth and brain development. 

  • Today, a significant number of children of all ages have poor diets that fail to meet national nutritional recommendations.  Only one in five high school children eats the five recommended servings of fruits and vegetables a day and fast food consumption has increased fivefold among children since 1970.  Nearly one-third of American children ages 4 to 19 eat fast food every day, resulting in about six extra pounds per year for each child.
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages - a key contributor to weight gain and obesity – constitute nearly 11 percent of children’s total calorie consumption.  
  • Children who do not routinely participate in sports or activities outside of school are more likely to be overweight or obese compared with children who participate in free-time physical activity, but experts say that children ages 6 to 19 should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity most days, about two-thirds of children do not meet this recommendation, and one-quarter of adolescents do not achieve this level on any day. A recent study showed that children ages 11 to 14 spent an average of nearly 12 hours watching television, on the computer, or playing video games.

Physical Environment

Disparities in a child’s physical environment increase their chances of being overweight or obese.  Being at risk for obesity depends greatly on whether a child has access to nutritious food, recreation centers, and safe neighborhoods.  

  • A recent study in Los Angeles County showed that adolescents living in low-income* neighborhoods were nine times as likely to be overweight as those living in well-off** neighborhoods. 
  • Children in predominantly minority and low-income neighborhoods have reduced access to supermarkets and fresh produce.  A study of selected communities found that only 8 percent of Black residents lived in areas with one or more supermarkets, compared with 31 percent of White residents.
  • Children ages 10 to 17 living in neighborhoods with no access to walking paths, parks or playgrounds, or recreation centers are significantly more likely to be overweight or obese compared with children who have access to such amenities. Studies have found that having recreational facilities in low-income and minority

Obesity

Children who are overweight or obese are at greater risk for serious health problems.  Overweight children are increasingly likely to suffer from illnesses that can affect their ability to live long, healthy, and productive lives. 

  • Children who are overweight or obese face a greater risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol (two serious risk factors for heart disease), Type 2 diabetes, bone and joint problems, and breathing problems like asthma and sleep apnea.
  • Overweight children are significantly more likely to become obese adults,  setting them up for a lifetime of increased health risks, such as heart disease, stroke, and osteoarthritis that come from being overweight.    
  • If childhood obesity trend continue, experts predict it could cut two to five years off the lifespan of the average child in America—making this the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. 

Medical Costs

Childhood obesity and its related health conditions are a significant source of medical costs for families and for our country. 

  • Annual medical costs for a child diagnosed with obesity are on average three times higher than those for a child who is not overweight or obese.
  • Nationwide, it is estimated that annual costs for prescription drugs, emergency room treatment and outpatient services related to childhood obesity total more than $14 billion, with an additional $238 million in inpatient hospital costs.
  • Research shows that obese children are more than three times as likely to be hospitalized as those who are not obese.  

Activity and Education

Obesity interferes with children’s daily activities and education, contributing to substantial indirect costs of childhood overweight and obesity.  Obesity can affect children’s ability to learn, play sports with their peers, and develop strong self-esteem, and can prevent them from reaching their full potential.  

  • Research based on interviews has shown that obese children have lower self-esteem and self-confidence than their peers.  Low self-esteem has been linked to having fewer friends, more depression, and poorer academic performance in school.  In one study, boys ages 9 to 16 who were chronically obese were significantly more likely to have depression than their peers who were not overweight or obese.
  • Obesity is associated with delayed skill acquisition in children as young as two to three years old.  Even after controlling for numerous factors, overweight or obese children are more likely than children who are not overweight or obese to miss more than two weeks of school in a year and to repeat a grade in school.  In one study, obese children had rates of school absenteeism that were 20 percent greater than those of their non-obese classmates.  

Access to Health Care and Healthy Food

Overweight and obese children who have access to quality healthcare, healthy food, and regular activity have improved health status and development.  Expanding access to health coverage and federal nutrition programs for children, enhancing the dietary quality of school meals, increasing physical education in schools, and improving neighborhood safety are all important to managing childhood obesity.   

  • Lack of health coverage has been found to increase the risk of being overweight in adolescence.  Children who do not have a medical home, or a usual place of care, are more likely to be overweight or obese compared with children who have a regular place of care.
  • Comprehensive health coverage allows children to access pediatricians, nutritionists, and mental health professionals, each of whom can be helpful in addressing the individual and environmental factors that are contributing to weight gain.
  • Students have better diets, relative to the recommendations of the National Dietary Guidelines for Americans, when unhealthy foods are not sold at school.  Research indicates that when healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables are available, students buy and eat more of them.
  • Research has shown that the number of overweight children decreased by 10 percent, and the number of children who became overweight dropped by 50 percent two years after participating in comprehensive family and school-based nutrition education programs.

Poor health in childhood can cast long shadows later in life; consequently, good health, nutrition, and activity throughout childhood are essential for children and for the adults and workers they will become.  All children must have access to comprehensive, affordable, and accessible healthcare.  

*Income below federal poverty level.
**Four percent in a community where the median income was over $100,000 versus 37 percent in a community with a median income of about $30,000.