Decoding the News About Childhood Obesity

Toddler Ballet Classes

When we see a story headlined “Childhood obesity down more than 40 percent, new study says” and then one headlined “Local Pediatrician Sees No Decline in Childhood Obesity” and still another that declares “No ‘Mission Accomplished’ In Childhood Obesity Fight,” what are we supposed to think? One newspaper even used the phrase “White House fiction” in its coverage.

A Chicago Tribune story is typical of the confusion. First it was published with the headline “Childhood obesity rate drops by nearly half” but then it was changed to “Obesity rates remain high, but stable in the U.S.” This story included a quotation from Dr. David Ludwig of the Harvard School of Public Health interpreting the news as a “possible tiny step” but adding: “The key finding is that obesity prevalence throughout the U.S. population has not changed in the last decade and remains at historic highs.”

For, Steven Ross Johnson presented an impartial picture:

The obesity rate for children between ages 2 and 5 fell to 8% in 2012 from 14% in 2003, according to the study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite the improvement within that specific age group, the study, published online Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found no significant change in the rate of obesity among American adults and youth overall.

Measured over a decade, the 43% decline, while it might sound impressive, was found only in children in the 2- to 5-year-old age group, while the obesity rate in older children and adults showed no change. Even in the toddler demographic, the decline was not steady, but fluctuating — down in 2003-2004, then back up in 2007-2008, then down again in the most recent reporting period. And like the Nielsen ratings for TV shows, the study’s results were based on a relatively small sample of the population, extrapolated to represent millions. The newest survey included a mere 600 infants and toddlers.

Epidemiologist Cynthia Ogden, author of the CDC study, issued a statement noting that this is the first time since the government began keeping records on obesity that a decline has been seen in any age group. Her phrase “small glimmer of hope” was repeated by many news outlets. But the hope is real, because catching obesity early is essential. An overweight preschooler is five times as likely as a normal-weight child to grow into an obese adult. When a child succumbs to obesity before age 5, turning things around is very difficult.

Dr. Pretlow on the air

Minnesota Public Radio interviewed Dr. Pretlow about the dip in the childhood obesity rate for pre-schoolers in its broadcast “The Daily Circuit,” which can be heard on the station’s website. One of Dr. Pretlow’s thoughts is that the 2- to-5-year-old demographic is amenable to change because at that stage of life, parents exercise almost complete power over a child’s food intake. Apparently, efforts to raise awareness are succeeding, and parents are grabbing the reins of control.

But this fortunate situation does not last once kids start school and are out in the world, where parental authority is weakened. For parents of older children, the only non-surgical answer is to control their access to the wrong kinds of food — a task that can only be accomplished in certain settings, such as a weight-loss camp or a residential weight-loss center.

Left to their own devices, kids have a hard time eating sensibly and correctly because their emotions take over. Once the brain processes the fact that food eases emotional distress, it begins to conform to the comfort-eating pattern. Dependency is almost inevitable, but parents can circumvent that fate by refusing to use food as a comforting reward, and by teaching coping skills that do not involve food.

As Dr. Pretlow has said time and time again, what kids need is not more information about nutrition. What they do need is help with learning to resist cravings.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Childhood obesity down more than 40 percent, new study says,”, 02/25/14
Source: “Obesity rates remain high, but stable in the U.S.,”, 02/26/14
Source: “Obesity rates for some children nearly halved since 2003, CDC study shows,”, 02/25/14
Source: “What can American adults learn from dropping childhood obesity rate?,”, 02/28/14
Image by Michael Kappel



  1. Where is the evidenced based research regarding obesity, health, and especially in children? I have not yet seen double blind, replicable studies which result in causal links being described. Correlative studies point to the need for more research, not treatment. I am deeply concerned that this huge focus of the so-called “obesity epidemic” is not based in sound research and science. The hysteria and misinformation that abounds does seem to feed the fat bashing I see.
    Thanks so much in advance for your response!
    Rebecca Lane

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Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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