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Here's some heartening news. The nation's children are not getting any fatter. The catch: they aren't getting any skinnier either. A new analysis from the federal government shows the obesity epidemic among kids and teens has hit a plateau - a rather large plateau. One-third of young people are still overweight or obese.

NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: In the study, federal health officials figured out the BMI for over 8,000 children and adolescents. The body mass index is a simple calculation of weight to height. It produces a number that rates individuals as normal weight, overweight or obese.

Dr. Reginald Washington says the new study shows the obesity epidemic among children is not getting worse, but it's also not getting better.

Dr. REGINALD WASHINGTON (Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children): That means 32 percent of the pediatric population is at risk of developing these issues of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and all the other issues we see that are related to obesity.

NEIGHMOND: And Washington sees lots of kids with weight-related problems. He's a pediatric cardiologist at the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver.

Dr. WASHINGTON: We see children we have Type 2 diabetes - and I'm talking about kids under the age of 10 - who have Type 2 diabetes, who have hypertension or high blood pressure, who have elevations in their cholesterol, some of whom need to go on medications. And we're seeing more and more of those kids, where 20 years ago it was almost unheard of to see kids in that age group having these medical issues.

NEIGHMOND: And if one in three kids sounds like an astounding number, says Washington, don't come to his hospital to see the reality; just go somewhere in your neighborhood.

Dr. WASHINGTON: I would encourage just somebody to go to a local school, park out front and observe the kids. And you will see that roughly a third of them are overweight or obese. I mean, it's staggering to observe.

NEIGHMOND: Washington says right now the best tool doctors have to identify overweight kids is the BMI. A child may appear to be a healthy weight, but a BMI calculation might prove otherwise. And waiting until kids actually look overweight only makes losing weight more difficult.

Measuring kids' BMI is slightly more complicated than measuring adults. For adults the BMI is an absolute number. If it's over 25, you're overweight. It's more complicated for kids, whose weight fluctuates as they grow, which is why a child's BMI is compared to other kids the same age and gender.

But Washington says there's another tool that will likely become routine over the next five years - a tape measure. In an editorial, pediatric endocrinologist David Ludwig says similar to adults, measuring a child's waist gives a more accurate prediction of disease risk.

Dr. DAVID LUDWIG (Pediatric Endocrinologist): BMI is a very good screening tool, but because it doesn't tell us anything about body composition - that is, the relative amounts of fat versus muscle in the body - at any given BMI risk for diabetes, heart disease and other complications can vary greatly, according to physical activity level, diet, and a number of other factors, including genetics.

NEIGHMOND: For adults, studies show abdominal fat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Evidence suggests the same for children - a good reason to closely monitor a child's weight as they grow.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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