The History of Obesity in Children

Childhood obesity affects all races and ethnic backgrounds. In the United States, 18 percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 are obese, 20 percent of kids aged 6 to 11 are obese and 10 percent of children aged 2 to 5 years old are obese. Children who are overweight are much more likely to become overweight adults if they do not change their dietary and exercise patterns. Weight problems are one of the easiest medical conditions to recognize, but treating it is proving difficult.


The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey has been tracking childhood overweight and obesity rates since the 1960s. Figures show a telling story. Between 1963 and 2008, rates of obesity among children between the ages of 2 and 19 have been inching upwards. From 1963 to 1970, 4.2 percent of 6 to 11 year olds and 4.6 percent of 12 to 19 year olds were obese. In 1988, 11.3 percent of 6 to 11 year olds and 10.5 percent of 12 to 19 year olds were obese. In 2001, just over 16 percent of 6 to 11 year olds were obese. The last survey, from 2007 to 2008, 19.6 and 18.1 percent of 6 to 11 and 12 to 19 year old kids were obese. Between 1971, the first year results were available for 2 to 5 year olds, and 2008, young kids went from an obesity rate of 5 percent to 10.4 percent.


No one knows for sure why kids are more obese than ever, but experts have no problem speculating. Dr. Robin Drucker, a pediatrician from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, reports that researchers attempted to look for a fat gene that would explain the half-century long, rising obesity numbers in kids. Instead, obesity in a family unit can be attributed to passing down habits from parent to child. A child who has one obese parent, says Drucker, is three times more likely to be an obese adult. A child with two obese parents has a 10-fold risk of being an obese adult. Parents who have bad dietary and exercise habits raise children with bad dietary and exercise habits. While kids are less obese than adults, the rise in obesity in kids follows a similar trajectory as adults. In the 1960s 13.3 percent of adults were obese. By 2006, 34.1 percent of adults were obese.


There are a variety of targets to take aim at when trying to explain the obesity problem in the United States. In 1970 Americans spent an estimated $6 billon on fast food, by 2006, they were spending nearly $142 billion. Prior to the mid 1970s, the only way to play a video game was to hitch a ride, or walk, to the closest arcade. In 2008, 38 percent of American homes had a video game console. By 2011, with smartphones – between 22 to 84 percent of kids under the age of 18 have cell phones and almost all kids have access to a mobile device – kids don’t even have to get out of bed and walk to another room to channel their favorite video games. It may be hard to argue against progress and innovation, but based on these numbers, all of this innovation is taking a toll on kids’ waistlines.

Physical Education

It’s hard to put 100 percent of the blame on parents when it comes to childhood obesity. At one time, physical education was a regular part of a public education curriculum. In 2011, few states require daily gym class, although most states do require some form of physical education. In 1994, a Conneticut school made news in "The New York Times" for curtailing its phys ed program. California was the first state to mandate a physical education program in public schools in the 1950s; by the end of the century however, fewer than 25 percent of students in the state could achieve four out of five fitness standards. While lawmakers have been making an effort to reverse this trend, slashed education funding and bankrupt states have made adding new programs seem impossible.