A decade-long drumbeat of bad news about childhood obesity is now officially wrong. Michelle Obama is wrong, too. America is not in the grip of a childhood obesity epidemic and, consequently, the First Lady’s much-ballyhooed anti-obesity strategy is redundant, at best.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in Wednesday’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the obesity rate among pre-school American children plummeted 43 percent over the past 10 years. Only 8 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds were obese in 2011-2012, down from 14 percent in 2003-2004.
Such good news is a veritable shock to anti-obesity campaigners, but it should not be. Despite being based upon the deeply flawed Body Mass Index height-weight ratio, official statistics have shown for some time that the child obesity ‘epidemic’ had leveled off.
For example, an earlier CDC childhood obesity study, also published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined the BMI of children between 1999 and 2008, the decade during which childhood obesity was consistently described as America’s preeminent public health problem.
The results were striking. At no time during the study period was there a statistically significant trend, except for boys at the highest BMI levels. In other words, any spike in obesity was narrowly confined to a very small number of very obese boys.
More recently, the CDC found that childhood obesity rates had fallen in some states (such as New York, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania) during the past few years. Most recently, the CDC documented a decline in the obesity rate among low-income children. Therefore, the very latest CDC data confirms rather than breaks the news that obesity rates are on the decline among American children.
How will the anti-obesity lobby, which for a decade described childhood obesity as an epidemic and advocated using the extensive powers of the state to combat it, respond to such positive, yet professionally awkward, news?
It will arrogantly assert that the decline is due to the raft of regulations and policy interventions it shoved down American throats in recent years. This analysis is as inaccurate as it is self-serving.
Federal, state, and local governments have attempted to tackle obesity by introducing an all-too-familiar menu of policies and regulatory items. The major ‘solutions’ include advertising restrictions and bans, school vending machine bans, healthier school meals, zoning restrictions, and warning labels.
There are three major problems with these solutions. First, they fail to conform to the standards of evidence-based medicine. There is strikingly little clinical evidence that any of these measures have reduced obesity in children. It is a reasonable requirement that proposed interventions rely upon on rigorous clinical evidence of efficacy. Yet, there is an almost complete absence of even the most flimsy evidence of effectiveness for all of them.