The obesity rate among American children and teenagers may have stabilized after a dramatic rise in the 1980s and 1990s that has been described as an epidemic, according to a US study on Wednesday.
The study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), based on a national health survey, found no significant change in the obesity rate between 1999 and 2006.
Led by Cynthia Ogden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers reviewed the survey of more than 8,000 children and teens aged between two and 19 conducted between 2003-2004 and 2005-2006.
The study found that 31.9 percent of the children were overweight, while 16 percent were obese and 11 percent extremely obese. The rates were nearly unchanged compared to 1999.
The obesity rate had tripled between 1980-1999, creating an epidemic blamed on a poor diet heavy on fat and sugar with little consumption of fruits and fresh vegetables and lack of exercise.
Obese children are at a higher risk of developing heart diseases, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. They are also more likely of becoming obese adults.
The study also shows racial and ethnic disparities, with 23 percent of children of Mexican origin considered obese, compared to 17 percent of blacks and 16 percent of whites.
Among girls, 24 percent of blacks were obese compared to 19 percent of those of Mexican origin and 14 percent of whites.
In an accompanying editorial, doctors Cara Ebbeling and David Ludwig of Children's Hospital Boston warned that it was too soon to tell if child obesity has really leveled off.
"Perhaps recent public health campaigns aimed at raising awareness of childhood obesity and improving the quality of school food have begun to pay off," they wrote.
"However, it is too early to know whether these data reflect a true plateau or a statistical aberration in an inexorable epidemic, and pre-existing racial/ethnic disparities show no sign of abating.
"On one point there is no uncertainty: without substantial declines in prevalence, the public health toll of childhood obesity will continue to mount, because it can take many years for an obese child to develop life-threatening complications."