Understanding recent trends in childhood obesity in the United States

Patricia M. Anderson, Kristin F. Butcher, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


The prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States has more than tripled over the last four decades from 5 percent in 1978 to 18.5 percent in 2016. There is evidence for a break in trend in recent years: after growing from 0.4 to 0.7 percentage point per year between 1978 and 2004, the rate of increase has slowed to 0.1 percentage point per year from 2004 to 2016. To better understand these trends, in this paper we analyze a range of datasets that collect information on childhood obesity. We analyze the data overall, across the age distribution, across birth cohorts, and for subgroups of interest. We find steady increases in cohort-level obesity prevalence through approximately age 10, with levels unchanged thereafter, suggesting a need for additional interventions at early ages. We find that the prevalence of obesity has diverged by race and gender in recent years, especially among children entering kindergarten. Compared with 5-year-olds in 1997, 5-year-olds in 2010 were 2 percentage points more likely to be obese overall. Black and Hispanic 5-year-olds were 5 and 3 percentage points more likely to be obese, respectively, while whites had a 1 percentage point increase in obesity. However, overall and among all subgroups the rate of growth in obesity from kindergarten through 3rd grade has declined in recent years. Together, these findings can inform a future research literature that aims to target obesity interventions where they will be most impactful.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)16-25
Number of pages10
JournalEconomics and Human Biology
StatePublished - Aug 2019


  • Childhood obesity
  • Trends in obesity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance (miscellaneous)


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