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Childhood Obesity Increased by Nearly 50 Percent Worldwide Since 1980

From 1980 to 2013, childhood obesity increased by 47.1 percent across the world, a far more rapid rate than that of adults, according to a new study published online today in the journal The Lancet.

The study authors drew upon 1,769 surveys, reports, and published studies that included data for height and weight, either through self-reporting or physical measurements. The sources provided 19,244 datapoints for country, year, age, and sex from 183 countries globally. The study author relied upon body mass index (BMI) as the benchmark of overweight and obesity, with individuals who had a BMI between 25 and 30 considered overweight and those with a BMI either 30 or above considered obese.

In 1980, 16.9 percent of boys and 16.2 percent of girls in developed countries were either considered overweight or obese. Thirty-three years later, those percentages jumped to 23.8 percent of boys and 22.6 percent of girls.

Developing countries haven't dodged the childhood-obesity bullet, either. In 1980, 8.1 percent of boys and 8.4 percent of girls in those countries were considered either overweight or obese; in 2013, that's true for 12.9 percent of boys and 13.4 percent of girls.

For adults, in contrast, prevalence of overweight and obesity combined rose by 27.5 percent over that time span. The percentages jumped from 28.8 percent to 36.9 percent for men and from 29.8 percent to 38.0 percent in women. In developed countries, more men than women were found to be either overweight or obese, while the reverse was true in developing countries.

One good piece of news among otherwise macabre findings: The increase in the rate of overweight and obesity hit a peak from 1992 through 2002, but has since slowed, particularly in developed countries. However, the study authors fear that the rate of obesity in developing countries is likely to continue climbing.

Well and Good

In both developed and developing countries, sex differences in the levels and trends of overweight and obesity were found to be small among children. Middle Eastern and North African countries featured particularly high rates of child and adolescent obesity, especially among girls.

"The rise in obesity among children is especially troubling in so many low- and middle-income countries," said Marie Ng, the paper's lead author and an assistant professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. "We know that there are severe downstream health effects from childhood obesity, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many cancers. We need to be thinking now about how to turn this trend around."

It's likely no surprise that the United States touts the highest proportion of the world's obese population (13 percent), with China and India representing an additional 15 percent combined.

A report released by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation last August found childhood-obesity rates to have more or less stabilized over the past decade in the United States. Adults' obesity rates, while higher than the childhood-obesity rates, also showed signs of leveling off, according to the report.

As Ng alluded to, however, childhood obesity can have serious long-lasting ramifications. A study published online earlier this month in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found men and women who are obese at age 25 to have a significantly higher chance of being severely obese a decade later.

The effort to prevent both childhood and adult obesity may finally be turning a corner, but as this new report suggests, there's still plenty of damage to undo.

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