May 30, 2000 (Washington) -- For pediatricians and a majority of parents, growth charts are old hat. But in fact, growth charts, first introduced in 1977, are the most widely used tools to track and identify developmental problems in children worldwide. But while the concept is now more than two decades old, U.S. health officials Tuesday released a new version that may very well prove to be an even more valuable tool down the road, thanks to the incorporation of a brand new assessment.
The assessment is a single number used to evaluate weight in relation to height. Known as the body mass index (BMI), it presently is used as a measure for body fat and for tracking weight gain. But according to U.S. health officials, it also can serve as an early warning signal, in essence helping identify the children at risk for developing weight problems as adults.
"These new growth charts are an important new tool to identify growth problems at an early age so we can better prevent excess weight gain," says Jeffery Koplan, MD, MPH, director of the CDC, the organization responsible for updating the charts.
The move is based on data gathered by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a collection of information about a cross-section of Americans from actual physical exams. The results showed that more than half of Americans are overweight and that the number of obese adults has doubled since 1980. The results also indicated the number of overweight children and adolescents has doubled over the past two decades, although their average height has remained virtually unchanged.
The new charts will not only provide a more accurate picture, but also offer an opportunity for prevention, says Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. "The BMI is an early warning signal that is helpful as early as age 2. That means that parents have an opportunity to change their children's eating habits before a weight problem ever develops," she says.
Children are considered at risk if they have a high ratio of body fat and a family history of weight problems. But parents should not take action without first consulting a health care professional, Shalala warns. "Individual health care providers are in the best position to effectively evaluate growth and any possible development problems, especially because of information provided with the new CDC charts," she says.
Besides the new assessment, the revised growth charts contain more information regarding cultural and racial diversities, as well as infant growth rates. Later this fall, the CDC also is scheduled to release a more comprehensive report regarding weight problems and obesity in America. But in the meantime, Koplan says the charts developed for use by pediatricians, nurses, and nutritionists can still serve as an important tool.
"Obesity is a condition that is difficult to treat clinically in children, so prevention is key," he concludes.
The new growth charts are published in a report, "CDC Growth Charts." The report and the corresponding data will be available on the CDC web site at www.cdc.gov/growthcharts.