Potbellies are becoming all too common among children, according to a new study that shows abdominal obesity in kids has increased by more than 65 percent in recent years.

Researchers say the findings are especially troubling because belly fat is now considered a better predictor of heart disease and diabetes risk than the more commonly used body mass index (BMI, a ratio of weight in relationship to height).

It’s the first national study to document the increase in children’s waistlines; it shows abdominal obesity increased by 65 percent among boys and nearly 70 percent among girls from 1988 to 2004.

Researchers say the findings paint a bleak picture for these children, who have a higher risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other health problems. But they say the good news is that it’s not too late for children with extra belly fat to do something to lower their health risk.

"Kids, teens and adults who have early stages of [hardening of the arteries] can have a healthy cardiovascular system again," says researcher Stephen Cook, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center's Golisano Children's Hospital at Strong, in a news release. "Older adults who have plaque buildup have a much harder battle, especially if the plaque has calcified."

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Kids’ Potbelly Problem

In the study, published in Pediatrics, researchers analyzed data gathered by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1988 to 2004. Using waist size, they estimated the number of boys and girls with abdominal obesity in four different age groups.

The results showed that the percentage of abdominal obesity in boys and girls increased significantly in every age group between 1999 and 2004; the increase in abdominal obesity in children rose even faster than those classified as overweight.

For example, the percentage of 6- to 11 year-old children with high BMI scores increased by 25 percent from 1999 to 2004, but the increase in the percentage of children with abdominal obesity in this age group rose by more than 35 percent.

"Those increases only grow more alarming as you tease out specific age groups over longer periods of time," says Cook. "For example, between the 1988-1994 data and the 1999-2004 data, the largest relative increase in the prevalence of abdominal obesity occurred among 2- to 5-year-old boys – 84 percent – and 18- to 19-year-old girls – 126 percent."

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Waistline Wake-up Call

Cook says measuring a child’s waistline is not a vital sign normally performed at each checkup and there is no consensus yet on the cutoff point for abdominal obesity. In this study, researchers considered children whose waist-to-height ratio was in the 90th percentile or more as an indicator of abdominal obesity.

But he says the results should serve as a wake-up call to parents and doctors to limit children’s sedentary activities, like watching TV and playing video games, and encourage them to be physically active to reduce the risk of obesity and health problems later in life.

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By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Chaoyong, L. Pediatrics, November 2006; vol 118: pp e1391-e1398. News release, American Academy of Pediatrics.