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New look at childhood obesity; Report: Kids not thinner.

Byline: Sabrina Tavernise

WASHINGTON -- Researchers at the University of North Carolina published a paper last week that introduced another wrinkle into the debate about childhood obesity. They disputed recent findings that obesity among young children has fallen since 2004, arguing that a longer view -- using data all the way back to 1999 -- showed that these youngsters were not really getting any thinner.

So which view is correct? The answer seems to be both.

Obesity has become a major health problem in the United States, affecting about 17 percent of Americans ages 2 to 19, up from about 5 percent in the early 1970s. The rate rose for years, but then leveled off, and the current debate centers on whether obesity has begun to decline in the youngest of these children.

The question has drawn considerable attention, not just because scientists disagree on the answer but also because it has a political dimension: The issue has been vigorously championed by Michelle Obama, the first lady.

The North Carolina researchers and the federal team that produced the earlier findings both relied on the same data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. It is considered a gold standard in health research because height and weight are measured by a health professional, not the respondents themselves.

But instead of looking only at the past decade of data on children ages 2 to 5, the North Carolina researchers looked at 14 years' worth.

An unusual spike in obesity among these children in 2003 created the false appearance of a later decline, they concluded, so comparing 2012 to 1999 gave a truer view of the trends.

Over the longer period, the researchers found that obesity remained flat in that young age group.

"When we look at the bigger picture, the change is not there,'' said Asheley Skinner, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina and the lead author of the study, which was published in JAMA Pediatrics. "I want this to remain a public health issue.''

Federal researchers who led the original analysis, published in JAMA, are standing by their results. Their study found that about 8 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds were obese in 2012, down from 14 percent in 2004 -- the first statistically significant decline for any group.

Cynthia L. Ogden, the lead author of that study and an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emphasized that the finding should be interpreted cautiously because the age group represents a tiny fraction of the U.S. population and the figures for youth more broadly had remained flat.

"Trends over different time periods can show different results,'' Ogden said in an email.

She pointed out that several other studies have detected patterns of decline among young children, including one by researchers in Massachusetts in 2012 and an analysis of data from a large federal maternal-child feeding program in 2013.
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Author:Tavernise, Sabrina
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 15, 2014
Words:482
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