Overview

Childhood obesity is one of the most urgent threats to the health of our nation. Over the past four decades, obesity rates in the United States have more than quadrupled among children ages 6 to 11, more than tripled among adolescents ages 12 to 19, and more than doubled among children ages 2 to 5. Today, more than 23.5 million U.S. children and adolescents—nearly one in three young people—are either overweight or obese.

Causes

Changes in children’s food environments over the past few decades have increased the availability, appeal, affordability, and consumption of foods and beverages that are low in nutrients, but high in fats, added sugars, and calories. Few children and adolescents in the United States have diets that meet national guidelines for good health such as the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, with many youths consuming excess fat, added sugars, and calories.

Paralleling changes in the food environment are social and environmental changes that have reduced opportunities for children to be physically active. Few children and youths get the 60 minutes of daily physical activity recommended by the federal government. This makes it even more important to reduce excess calories, especially from low-nutrition foods, to achieve the energy balance required for a healthy body weight.

Consequences

Overweight and obese children are at higher risk than their healthy-weight peers for a host of serious illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, asthma, and certain types of cancer. Obese children already are being diagnosed with health problems previously considered to be “adult” illnesses, such as Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

Obesity also poses a tremendous financial threat to our economy and our health care system. The medical cost of adult obesity in the United States is difficult to calculate, but estimates range from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion per year. Childhood obesity alone carries a huge price tag—up to $14 billion per year in direct health care costs. Retired military leaders warn that childhood obesity also threatens our national security because so many young people who want to serve in the armed forces are not fit to do so.

What We Do

Healthy Eating Research: Building Evidence to Prevent Childhood Obesity, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), supports studies to identify and evaluate policies and environmental approaches at the organizational, community, state, and national levels that have the greatest potential to help children lead healthy lives and reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.