Study: Teens Appear to Be Getting Healthier

Clearly, it's because Mean Girls taught us that butter is a carb?

Rates of teen obesity are curbing, according to new analysis published Monday in the health jounral Pediatrics. Interestingly enough, the study also shows gendered differences in the exercise and diet patterns of adolescents — which could provide a key clue to dealing with the obesity epidemic moving forward.

The study took place between 2001 and 2009, with researchers checking in on a representative sample of around 35,000 kids. The children, ages 11-16, self-reported on their diet, physical activity, height, and weight. Overall, the study shows a stabilization of Body Mass Indexes (BMI), greater amounts of physical activity, less sugar consumption, and more fruits and vegetables eaten among young teens.

It’s easy to glorify this as a slim-down for America’s youth, but a closer look reveals there’s still quite a way to go.

It's worth noting that the number of obese children hasn’t fallen — it's stabilized: BMIs (an admittedly crude measure of obesity) actually rose during the first half of the study, and only declined by .26 percent (a very non-statistically significant number) between 2005 and 2009. Teens report meeting the federal recommendation of at least 60 minutes of exercise per day an average of 4.5 times a week (up from 4.3 in 2009), but that's still short of the prescribed seven days a week. Sugar consumption is down — but it’s down to “almost four” sugary drinks a day instead of five.

This study reflects the recent drops in obesity rates seen in some major American cities at the end of last year: Mississippi saw an almost unbelievable 13.3 percent drop between spring 2005 and 2011, New York City reported a 5.5 percent drop in obesity among its schoolchildren between the 2006-07 and 2010-11 school years, and LA saw a three percent decline.

Nutritionists and health scientists have known for years now that health recommendations can vary by sex, but it’s rare that gendered considerations begin before puberty. Lead author Ronald Ianotti says that the findings indicate pediatricians might need to start tailoring health advice to teens based on gender.

Overall, boys showed more improvement with their BMIs than the girls did. Iannotti and co-author Jing Wang found that significant gendered differences exist at the behavioral level: Girls ate more fruits and vegetables than boys, but also spent more time on the computer, ate more sweets, and had fewer breakfasts. By tailoring health campaigns to gender-specific behaviors and eating patterns — for instance, social media campaigns specifically directed toward adolescent girls — it might be possible to continue the progress shown in this study.

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