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Pa. childhood obesity rate is 9th highest in nation, and N.J. is 22nd, new study finds

After years of increase, obesity rates are holding steady -- but that's not good enough, health experts say.

Obesity rates have leveled off, a new study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds.
Obesity rates have leveled off, a new study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds.Read moreiStock (custom credit) / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Pennsylvania has the nation’s ninth-highest childhood obesity rate for youngsters ages 10 to 17, according to a new nationwide report.

New Jersey comes in at 22nd highest for children in that age group, according to the study, released Thursday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The good news in the report is that regionally and nationally, obesity rates for these adolescents have held steady in recent years after decades of increases.

However, “childhood obesity rates remain stubbornly and historically high, putting millions of young people at greater risk for serious health conditions,” according to the study. Those health problems include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and certain types of cancer.

What’s more, the impact falls disproportionately on children of color and those living in poverty. The obesity rates for black children and Hispanic children age 10 to 17 were 22.2% and 19%, respectively. For white youngsters of the same age, it was 11.8%. The rate was 7.3% for Asian youth.

In households living below the federal poverty level, the childhood obesity rate was nearly 22%; families with incomes at least 400% above the poverty level have a rate of 9.4%.

The national obesity rate for children 10 to 17 is 15.3%, or about 4.8 million young people, according to the report, based on data from the 2017 and 2018 National Survey of Children’s Health, as well as analysis by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau.

Pennsylvania’s rate is 17.4%, or about 185,400 children. In New Jersey, the rate is 15%, representing 124,700 youngsters.

The rate for Philadelphia youngsters is above either state’s average. According to the most recent available data from Philadelphia health officials, the obesity rate for city children ages 5 to 18 was 20.6%.

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Childhood obesity is defined by the report as a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile for youngsters of the same age and gender — which means their BMI is higher than that of 95% of their peers. BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by height in square meters. Overweight is defined as being at or above the 85th percentile but below the 95th percentile for youngsters of the same age and gender.

For example, a 10-year-old boy who is 56 inches tall and weighs 102 pounds would have a BMI of 22.9, placing him in the 95th percentile, the obesity range, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These new data show that this challenge touches the lives of far too many children in this country, and that black and Hispanic youth are still at greater risk than their white and Asian peers,” said foundation president and CEO Richard Besser.

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Mississippi had the highest overall youth obesity rate at 25.4%. The lowest was Utah with 8.7%.

The foundation’s report also contains recommendations on ways to address the continuing childhood obesity problem.

Among the report’s suggestions are for the U.S Department of Agriculture to rescind proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — also referred to as the food stamp program — which the authors say would cause millions of people to lose benefits. SNAP is the nation’s largest nutrition assistance program, helping to feed about 36 million people a month, about half of whom are children.

Higher obesity rates for poor families often reflect lack of access to nutritious foods or inability to afford fresh fruits and vegetables.

Other recommendations include making sure that any changes to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) are science-based. The CDC should also have enough resources to provide grants in all 50 states to implement anti-obesity campaigns, it said.