Context: Overweight is the most common health problem facing US children. Data for adults suggest that overweight prevalence has increased by more than 50% in the last 10 years. Data for children also suggest that the prevalence of overweight continues to increase rapidly.
Objective: To investigate recent changes in the prevalence of overweight within a nationally representative sample of children.
Design, setting, and participants: The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a prospective cohort study conducted from 1986 to 1998 among 8270 children aged 4 to 12 years (24 174 growth points were analyzed).
Main outcome measures: Prevalence of overweight children, defined as body mass index (BMI) greater than the 95th percentile for age and sex, and prevalence of overweight and at-risk children, defined as BMI greater than the 85th percentile for age and sex. The roles of race/ethnicity, sex, income, and region of residence were also examined.
Results: Between 1986 and 1998, overweight increased significantly and steadily among African American (P<.001), Hispanic (P<.001), and white (P =.03) children. By 1998, overweight prevalence increased to 21.5% among African Americans, 21.8% among Hispanics, and 12.3% among non-Hispanic whites. In addition, overweight children were heavier in 1998 compared with 1986 (P<.001). After adjusting for confounding variables, overweight increased fastest among minorities and southerners, creating large demographic differences in the prevalence of childhood overweight by 1998. The number of children with BMI greater than the 85th percentile increased significantly from 1986 to 1998 among African American and Hispanic children (P<.001 for both) and nonsignificantly among white children (P =.77).
Conclusions: Childhood overweight continues to increase rapidly in the United States, particularly among African Americans and Hispanics. Culturally competent treatment strategies as well as other policy interventions are required to increase physical activity and encourage healthy eating patterns among children.