For those concerned about obesity, particularly in children, a new study published Tuesday in Obesity is unlikely to ease any worries.

The authors analyzed 15 years worth of data on childhood obesity rates from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), specifically from 1999 to 2014. Because the NHANES, which is conducted annually, is one of the largest and most nationally representative surveys around, the researchers were able to paint a clearer picture of childhood obesity. Not only could they track its rate over time, but they could also follow the percentage of children with more severe class II or III obesity, when a person has a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 35 or higher. What they found was disappointing.

"Despite some other recent reports, we found no indication of a decline in obesity prevalence in the United States in any group of children aged 2 through 19," said lead author Dr. Asheley Skinner, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at Duke University, in a statement. "This is particularly true with severe obesity, which remains high, especially among adolescents."

Out of those surveyed from 2013 to 2014, 33.4 percent of children were overweight. Of those, 17.4 percent had class I obesity, 6.2 percent had class II, and 2.4 percent had class III. These rates were slightly higher than what was seen from 2011 to 2012, but not high enough to clearly indicate an increase in obesity rates between the two time periods. Over the long term, though, there was a noticeable jump between 1999 to 2014 across all categories.

More specifically, nearly 10 percent of teenagers fit the criteria for severe obesity from 2013 to 2014, while severe obesity rates were highest among black and Hispanic children at 7.4 and 8.6 percent, respectively. All told, the researchers estimate that 4.5 million children and teenagers are currently living with severe obesity.

Obesity rates
Though rates haven't significantly risen in the past few years, the long term trends for childhood obesity continue to shoot upward. Mark Dubowski, Duke Health

Unlike an earlier study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that also analyzed NHANES data, the researchers found no statistically significant decline in obesity rates among children ages 2 to 5. That’s likely because the earlier CDC study only looked at data from 2003 to 2012, whereas the current study looked further back. The time period of 2003 to 2004 had much higher rates of obesity compared to other years, which may have been a statistical fluke. Though there was still a decline of obesity in these youngest children from 1999 to 2014, it wasn’t large enough to conclude that the change was real. Only by continuing to study these trends over time will researchers be able to say for sure.

As Medical Daily has recently discussed, while the research looking at how excess weight negatively impacts our health is mixed for people who are overweight or mildly obese, it's much clearer and more troubling in the case of severe childhood obesity. And the more children who become severely obese, the more likely we’ll have to consider radical treatments such as bariatric surgery more widely.

“While this option is both costly in the short term, not available in many centers, and certainly a high intensity treatment program, the prevalence of severe obesity and the success of the procedures suggests that programmatic and policy efforts should address the availability of bariatric surgery at the same time as other options are under research,” the authors wrote.

Despite Skinner’s hope that the public not be discouraged by her team’s findings, it's difficult to find any sort of silver lining here. It seems apparent that we’ve collectively failed to do much of anything about obesity, whether in children or adults. And it's not at all certain there are any promising solutions to come in the near future.

“Coordinated efforts, through integration of clinical and community systems, and supported by policies addressing population-level and individual needs, are necessary to address a complex, recalcitrant problem,” the researchers concluded.

Source: Skinner A, Perrin E, Skelton J. Prevalence of Obesity and Severe Obesity in US Children, 1999-2014. Obesity. 2016.