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One in 20 U.S. Children, Teens Classified as 'Severely Obese'

Between 4 and 6 percent of all U.S. youth are "severely obese," according to an American Heart Association scientific statement published online today in the journal Circulation.

To meet the AHA's threshold for severe obesity, a child over the age of 2 must either have a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or higher, or must have a BMI that's at least 20 percent higher than the 95th percentile for their gender and age.

For children and teens, BMI calculations incorporate age- and gender-specific growth patterns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website features clinical growth charts for boys and girls between the ages of 2 and 20, which help determine where the specific percentiles fall for each gender and age group. (Curious to see where your child falls? The CDC's website also has an online BMI calculator for children and teens.)

The AHA acknowledges that BMI, which is typically calculated based on height and weight, isn't a perfect measure of obesity. However, two of the other most common methods, skinfold thickness and waist circumference, present their own challenges, the association claims.

Well and Good

Based on the limited data available to the authors, "it appears that severe obesity is the fastest-growing subcategory of obesity in youth," they write. Despite overall childhood-obesity rates stagnating over the past decade, severe-obesity rates have continued to jump, according to the AHA.

In the statement, the authors give two examples of children who would fall under the "severely obese" label: a 7-year-old girl of average height who weighs more than 75 pounds and a 13-year-old boy of average height who weighs over 160 pounds.

Severe obesity can lead to a host of both short- and long-term health risks for children, including higher levels of blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high blood cholesterol, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

"Severe obesity in young people has grave health consequences," said Aaron Kelly, lead author of the statement and a researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "It's a much more serious childhood disease than obesity."

When it comes to treating and preventing severe childhood obesity, the authors say that surgery shouldn't necessarily be seen as a silver bullet. Many families can't afford that type of surgery for their children, especially if they lack medical insurance.

Instead, the authors push for "innovative approaches to fill the gap between lifestyle/medication and surgery."

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