American children continue to gain too much weight, with the sharpest increase in obesity occurring among those between 2 and 5 years old, according to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

Obesity remains highest among Hispanic and African-American children, according to the new study. For example, researchers found that as many as half of all Hispanic children are either overweight or obese, a percentage researchers called “astounding.”  

“What’s concerning ... is that we know that once obesity is established, it’s really hard to reverse,” said Stephen Daniels, M.D., Ph.D., chairman of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and pediatrician-in-chief at the Children’s Hospital Colorado. Daniels was not involved in the study.

In the new study, researchers evaluated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data culled from a nationally representative sample of more than 3,000 children. They compared body mass index (BMI) reported in 2013 and 2014 to BMI reported in 2015 and 2016. What they found was deeply worrying.

“Previously reported improvements seen in younger children were either an anomaly or transient because national data presented here demonstrate a sharp increase" in obesity, the authors wrote in their conclusion.

“This matters,” said Joseph Skelton, M.D., a co-author of the study and an associate professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest School of Medicine. “Investing in the health of children now is not only the right thing to do, it will save us money down the road.”

One Problem, Many Factors

On a national level, there have been efforts to reverse this problem, and not just with former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. In 2015, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation pledged a $500 million dollar initiative to accelerate progress for children of color and those who live in poverty, as they are hit the hardest by the national obesity epidemic.

But a combination of lifestyle factors, such as poor eating habits  and not enough exercise, as well as large-scale problems such as family money troubles and calorie-packed school lunches, continue to drive obesity upwards, David S. Ludwig, M.D., professor of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, wrote in an editorial accompanying the new study.

Many Americans can’t—and shouldn’t—wait for local and federal governments to tackle this issue. Here’s how to deal with obesity in your family

What You Can Do

  1. Set your kids up for healthy eating. “Parents have control,” said Daniels, the pediatrics chairman at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. What’s in the house will get eaten, so stock the fridge with healthy options. A review of more than 40 studies showed that repeated exposure to healthy foods and nutritious snacks helps kids develop healthier preferences. 
  2. Healthier doesn't have to cost more. Fruits and vegetables bought "in season" tend to be both cheaper and more flavorful because they don't travel long distances to get to the store. You can also save by freezing what you don't use: Overripe fruit that’s frozen, for example, can be added to smoothies, breads, jams, or sauces when the need arises, and veggies can be tossed into soups and casseroles. 
  3. Gently work movement into your lifestyle. Something as simple as a regular, after-dinner stroll is just the sort of tiny lifestyle tweak that promotes overall health, said Ludwig. Whether you live in a suburban development or busy urban neighborhood, it can be part of a healthy routine.
  4. Think of it as a family issue. Even if just one child is overweight, make it clear that the rules and structures are enforced to encourage health for the whole family, said Daniels. This minimizes weight stigma. “What helps the overweight kid lose weight is what keeps the lean kid from developing a problem,” said Ludwig.
  5. Make movement fun. Most kids love to play, so help make it easy for them to stay on their feet. “If you just leave kids alone with some sports equipment, they will find ways to run around and be active,” said Ludwig. “It’s just their natural state.”
  6. Talk to your doctor. If you are struggling to get your family’s health on track, know that your healthcare provider can help, said Daniels. Ask about the programs and resources that may be available to you.