Over the last 40 years, the number of kids and teens with obesity has skyrocketed worldwide. In 1975, an estimated 5 million girls and 6 million boys were obese. By 2016, those numbers had risen to an estimated 50 million girls and 74 million boys, according to a report published online October 10 in the Lancet. While the increase in childhood obesity has slowed or leveled off in many high-income countries, it continues to grow in other parts of the world, especially in Asia.
Using the body mass index, a ratio of weight to height, of more than 30 million 5- to 19-year-olds, researchers tracked trends from 1975 to 2016 in five weight categories: moderate to severe underweight, mild underweight, healthy weight, overweight and obesity. The researchers defined obesity as having a BMI around 19 or higher for a 5-year-old up to around 30 or higher for a 19-year-old.
Globally, more kids and teens — an estimated 117 million boys and 75 million girls — were moderately or severely underweight in 2016 than were obese. But the total number of obese children is expected to overtake the moderately or severely underweight total by 2022, the researchers say.
The globalization of poor diet and inactivity is part of the problem, says William Dietz, a pediatrician at George Washington University in Washington D.C., who wrote a commentary that accompanies the study. Processed foods and sugary drinks have become widely available around the world. And urbanization, which also increased in the last four decades, tends to reduce physical activity, Dietz says.
While obesity rates for kids and teens have largely leveled off in most wealthy countries, those numbers continue to increase for adults. The findings in children are consistent with evidence showing a drop in the consumption of fast food among children and adults in the United States over the last decade, Dietz says. “Children are going to be much more susceptible to changes in caloric intake than adults.”