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Child obesity gap widens among minorities

A study advises physicians to measure patients' BMI regularly and take a more active approach to eliminating disparities.

By Christine S. Moyer — Posted Sept. 3, 2010

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As ethnic and racial disparities in childhood obesity widen, there is a growing need for physicians to be more active in reducing such discrepancies and preventing obesity, a new study says.

The study's lead author encourages pediatricians and family physicians to measure children's and adolescents' body mass index at every checkup, and to discuss concerns about nutrition and weight with parents. Doctors also should advocate for local, state and national policies that aim to reduce obesity among this age group, the authors said.

The report, published online Aug. 16 in Pediatrics, found that although obesity rates have started declining for some adolescents, rates continue to increase among some ethnic and racial groups.

"We've known there are disparities in obesity, but we didn't realize that as some groups improve, those disparities are getting larger. ... We expect the difference will be even greater in the future. This is a real call to action," said lead author Kristine Madsen, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.

An estimated 17% of U.S. children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC defines overweight as a BMI at or above the 85th percentile for children of the same age and sex. Obese children have a BMI at or above the 95th percentile (link).

Researchers examined data on about 8.2 million fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade students, 8 to 17, who participated in BMI screening at California schools between 2001 and 2008.

In 2008, 38% of students were overweight. Of those, 19.8% were obese and 3.6% were severely obese, with a BMI at or above the 99th percentile.

Researchers looked at obesity among different racial and ethnic groups by males and females separately. They found that Native American, black and Hispanic girls were up to more than twice as likely to be obese as white girls.

While obesity rates among all white students in the 95th percentile peaked in 2005 and then decreased, rates for some minorities climbed throughout the study period. Most concerning, Dr. Madsen said, was that obesity levels among Native American and black girls never peaked.

Though the study focuses on California students, Dr. Madsen said the results show population trends that are applicable elsewhere.

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