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Why are so many teens so overweight?


Nikki Blonsky (left) is one of the stars on the new ABC Family show "Huge."(ABC Family/Bruce Birmelin)

The latest data show that about 18 percent of kids ages 12 to 19 are obese, as defined by having a BMI of 95 in the 95th percentile or higher. That percentage has remained stable over the past decade.

So nearly one in five American teens is obese.

Statistics are one thing. But coming face to face with teen obesity drives home the need to do something about it.

The new ABC Family series "Huge" sure brings you face to face with adolescent obesity. As I write in this week's Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column, the show, set at a summer weight-loss camp, is sobering in many ways, including the fact that the young actors playing the overweight teens are themselves overweight or obese.

Watching the show makes you ache for these young people and hope that "fat camp" will help them not only lose weight but sort out the other issues they face by virtue of being fat.

There are lots of efforts afoot these days to help curb child and adolescent obesity, the most prominent of them the Michelle Obama-sponsored Let's Move! campaign. It remains to be seen whether that initiative will succeed in its goal of virtually eliminating childhood obesity -- and, by extension, adolescent obesity -- in a generation.

But teen obesity is a tough nut to crack, in part because it's not clear why some kids become so overweight. There are lots of potential causes, as this overview shows. Of course, lots of kids are overweight simply because they eat too much and don't move around enough.

But as Evan Nadler, co-director of the Obesity Institute at Children's National Medical Center, says in this week's "Eat, Drink" column, teenagers' psychological, self-esteem and social issues often add up to a "much more complicated mental-health situation" than is generally seen in overweight adults.

And there are other variables to contend with: Research released last month showed that inadequate sleep increases risk of obesity, especially for middle-school boys. Genetics can play a role, too, though another study published in April showed that the effects of a certain gene that predisposes teens to weight gain can be countered by an hour a day of moderate to vigorous exercise.

Some of the characters on "Huge" are repeat campers, having lost weight at camp but then regained it later. I'm afraid that cycle is likely to repeat itself among overweight kids everywhere unless we can figure out how to break it.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 22, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity , School Nutrition , Teens  
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Comments

Do you mean a BMI of 30 or higher, rather than 95 or higher?

Posted by: arlingtonwoman | June 22, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

It's pretty simple - too many calories in, too many calories out. If you look back to my generation growing up in the 60s and 70s, it was rarity that someone was overweight. If you look at footage from Woodstock, you'll see that. Everyone was thin. We all had our issues then albeit different ones. But, today's youth just eat too much and don't exercise like we did when we were younger.

Posted by: YRahm | June 22, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Yrahm- I agree with you, but the problem isn't that the calories in have gone way up. I've seen studies that show we've either been even or consume about 1% more calories than 30 years ago. So clearly, it's about the calories out. At least M.O. has that right with the Let's Move program rather than some soda tax.

Posted by: byte1 | June 22, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

No question that we have a huge epidemic of obese kids. But how can 18% of teens have a BMI above the 95th percentile?

This is Lake Wobegon math: "where all children are above average."

Posted by: kcx7 | June 22, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

It's actually not that simple. Sure, it is about too many calories. But the question is, why? What is leading so many young people to desire and eat more food than they need? I also grew up in the 60s and yes, young people were thinner but they did not have higher self-control than kids today. Also I am not sure we exercised more. Back then it was rare for non-athletes to jog or ride bikes. I think this is definitely worthy of research and of using a variety of approaches including less soda, more exercise, etc.

Posted by: catherine3 | June 22, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

kcx7, I noticed the same thing, but I think it's pretty easily answered. The percentiles are based on norms developed at some point in time. (When and how? I have no idea.) So, the percentiles are not meant to reflect the current distribution of the population but some set of normative data. Therefore, it's quite possible for 18% of kids to be at the 95th percentile or above for weight.

Posted by: rlalumiere | June 22, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

in the 60s sodas came in return deposit bottles that were heavy to lug home and heavy to lug back and a hassle to deal with. This kept sales relatively low.

in the 60s snack foods were for sale, but the packages were all smaller than today and not nearly as omnipresent.

in the 60s there were no computer games

in the 60s there were 3 tv channels.

in the 60s suburbia was on the rise but people still got out of the house to recreate because, well, there were only 3 channels on tv/

in the 60s kids walked to school or rode bicycles because there was not the omnipresent fear of child kidnappings.

in the 60s there were fewer "labor saving devices" -- electric can openers were around, but considered a luxury.

In the 60s the largest burger McDonalds sold was a double cheeseburger, which was a regular one of their midget little things with two patties and two cheeses (I know because i worked at mcd in 67). The quarter pounder did not exist. Fries came in one size -- small -- in the paper envelope you now have to ask for.

and so on

and so on, and on, and on.

Posted by: summicron1 | June 22, 2010 9:18 PM | Report abuse

Those aged 18-19 are also adults and not "kids" or "teens", meaning they shouldn't be called those words. No one should be forced to lose weight but encouragement is the way to go.

Posted by: LibertyForAll | June 23, 2010 12:16 AM | Report abuse

I'm visiting from overseas and am astonished by the number of overweight and obese kids, parents and people in the US. I've been trying to feed my kids healthily while I'm here but am finding it extremely difficult. There is so much choice - so many fattening, sugary and salty foods on supermarket shelves. I feel sorry for the general populace who don't know how to read nutritional information and don't know the meaning of "high fructose corn syrup", in ingredients lists. I shake my head in despair. It's pleasing to read about Michelle Obama's initiative, but if weight loss is the aim then that's only half of the problem addressed. You have to look at what people are putting in their mouths, too. Just remember, the closer you can eat something to it's natural state (eg. just out of the ground or from the ocean/paddock), the better it is for you. This is how we humans are meant to eat. Packaged, processed food stuffs have become the norm and we are not programmed to function well on them. Please excuse my preaching nature, but it's something I'm passionate about.

Posted by: nfuhrmann | June 23, 2010 3:21 AM | Report abuse

I agree with nfuhrmann, when I arrived here I was amazed over the size of the supermarkets and how little there was in them that I could actually even consider buying. Why are there so many overweight teenagers - because there are so many overweight children! In the first ten years many parents manage to create a physical and psychological damage to their kids that will last a lifetime. Teach the kids to eat the right food from the beginning and they will, with time, eat everything. My teenagers, who eat all kind of foods( even chips and chicken nuggets), are always worried when they bring home American friends for dinner. Nothing but pizza, hamburgers, ice cream or chips can be served otherwise their friends won't like it. To serve an artichoke,a sallad, a boiled potato, spinach, grilled fish or a wook is for example out of question. Or olives or pistachio nuts as snacks, just to mention a few examples of food that my girls eat regularly. Another thing is the fear of letting the kids move around on their own. Since elementary school my girls have walked or biked to school (in a quiet corner of NW Washington). They were almost alone in doing that. This has continued through middle and high school, where nobody but a couple of other Scandinavian kids bike or walk. It would be interesting to se a study of the risk of early death due to kidnapping compared to the lifethreatening conditions due to obesety in children and teens. I'm pretty convinced that the risk assessment many parents do is distorted.
I don't think you have to complicate things - in a country where "strawberry" milk, choclate chip cookies and potato chips are considered foods that can be served as a part of a regular meal in school or at home, the kids will continue to be overweight.

Posted by: Swedish2 | June 23, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I was struck by the very same thought on weight when I last saw the movie Woodstock. Only 4 people in it were overweight. In the 50's and 60's we were outside when we were not in school. Our Mother's were inside and insisted we be outside running around and working off steam. Our Mother's prepared a dinner every night. Meat, vegetables, starch and maybe a fruity dessert. Today, our Mothers have to work outside the home. It's a fact that is not going to change. They get home late in the day too exhausted to cook on a regular basis. If they do it becomes a late meal which is also not good you. There is a fast food restaurant on every single corner in town now. In the 50s and 60s there might be one or two in the entire town. We did not eat out, EVER. We did not have that kind of extra money for 4 kids (larger families then, too) Sodas were a TREAT with popcorn. And, yes, we walked to school. I lived in Arlington, we were not poor, but we certainly lived with less than we do today. One car, one TV, one phone, no cell bill, no cable bill. Outside there were LOTS OF KIDS we could play with. Not so today. They are not out there. They are in daycare or afterschool care somewhere else. Life is just DIFFERENT and I don't see it going backwards. The answer to this obesity will have to be a NEW APPROACH. Not the way it used to be.

Posted by: mmartin622 | June 26, 2010 5:48 AM | Report abuse

mmartin622- You're letting people off too easy! I work full time, and my family doesn't eat junk and only rarely eats out. We also have only 1 TV and 1 computer. It's easy to NOT buy something (chips, soda, crappy convenience food), especially when there are alternatives that take no more time to prepare and eat (water, fruit). I admit, I may spend a bit more time chopping and prepping, but feeding your family healthy foods where you control the ingredients is worth the tiny bit of extra effort.

One thing I will say is that I'm so thankful to live and work along E-W Hwy in MoCo, where there is virtually no fast food, and if there is, there is no drive-through. When convenience is in your face, it's easy to be weak. (Somehow this doesn't tempt me at the supermarket, probably because I enjoy cooking.)

Posted by: atb2 | June 28, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

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