The most recent national statistics show that the rise in childhood obesity rates is stabilizing, but health advocates say they don't feel like celebrating.
Staff photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press Faith Scott, left, and Ariauna Rolfe play on the playground outside Westide Elementary as part of the YMCA-run after school program called Food and Fun.
"It's nothing to be happy about. The numbers are staggering," said Russell Cliche, director of the coordinated school health department for Hamilton County Schools.
The latest figures from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted by a division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show a slight decline in childhood obesity rates from four years ago and no real change from 1999.
Overall, the percentage of children who are obese or overweight dropped in 2007-08 to 31.7 from 31.9 in 2003-06.
That's still nearly one-third of kids who are at heightened risk for heart disease, asthma and Type 2 diabetes, experts said.
"It doesn't mean that we've conquered this thing. We're not even close," said John Bilderback, program coordinator for Step One, the anti-obesity program of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.
"This should not be about people being overweight anymore," he said. "It should really be about the disease that comes from that and the strain it's going to put on the health care system and the quality of life of the individual."
The health effects of the added weight already are apparent.
CDC data released this week showed that one out of every five teenagers in the United States has an abnormal cholesterol level that puts them at heightened risk of heart disease. Among obese teenagers, the number is 43 percent.
The risks associated with childhood obesity should not be understated, said Dr. Henry Baughman, with Promise Pediatrics in Ringgold, Ga.
"I think it's up there with smoking, drinking, drugs and unprotected sex," he said. "These are all things that are very important from a pediatric perspective to address."
It's the rising number of young children reaching very obese levels that worries some health advocates the most.
"When you start to see these (obesity) numbers pop up in kids and you think, 'They've only lived on this planet, amongst all of us who live this way, anywhere from five to 10 years. If they're already showing signs of putting on weight now and having high-blood pressure concerns, what's going to happen when they live longer with us?'" Mr. Cliche said.
Almost 20 percent of sixth-graders in Georgia are obese, according to the most recent student health survey, taken in 2007.
RISE OVER TIME
Over the past 30 years, the number of children above the 95 percentile for body-mass index, which has been used as a threshold for obese status, has shot up 17 percent.
And, while childhood obesity rates have held steady, the latest federal survey did find a significant trend upward in one data set: The heaviest boys, with a BMI at or above the 97th percentile, between the ages of 6 and 19, reached 15.1 percent, up from 13.2 percent in the 2003-06 survey.
BY THE NUMBERS
Percentage of children ages 10-17 who were overweight or obese in 2007:
* Tennessee: 36.5 (ranked 5th worst out of all states)
* Georgia: 37.3 (ranked 3rd)
* Alabama: 36.1 (ranked 6th)
* U.S. average: 31.7
SOURCE: Trust for America's Health
Body-mass index, or BMI, is a ratio calculated from weight and height. Children are generally considered overweight when BMI is between the 85th and 95th percentile for their age and gender. Children are considered obese with BMIs at or above the 95th percentile.
SOURCE: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
TIPS FOR PARENTS
* Try to make favorite meals healthier by making small changes in ingredients and adding vegetables.
* Serve reasonable portions.
* Limit sugary drinks and drink lots of water.
* Encourage active play. Children should have at least one hour of moderately intense activity on most days, and preferably every day. Add physical activity to your own routine and encourage your children to join you.
* Limit "screen time," the time your children watch television, play video games or surf the Web, to no more than two hours per day.
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
A survey of more than 9,000 students in the Hamilton County school system in the 2008-09 school year showed that 15 percent of children are overweight and 17 percent are obese, according to data collected by the Office of Coordinated School Health, part of the state education department.
Although rising obesity rates appear to have plateaued statewide, 39 percent of Tennessee students are still overweight or obese.
Advocates have been tackling the problem in schools, with a push for healthier lunches and more exercise, as well as extensive data-gathering that will provide a baseline for future studies.
Thanks to policy changes, the percentage of Tennessee schools that did not sell soft drinks or high-calorie fruit juices increased from 26.7 percent in 2006 to 74 percent in 2008, according to the Office of Coordinated School Health.
In the community, health officials are working to change a culture of inactivity and overconsumption of the unhealthiest foods through environmental and policy changes. More access to safe parks and sidewalks for exercise, grocery stores that sell affordable fresh produce and community gardens are all avenues being explored to give people more options, Step One's Mr. Bilderback said.
The YMCAs in North Georgia and Hamilton County are participating in Activate America, part of the national YMCA's efforts to improve health through cultural changes, said Bill Rush, local project manager for the Activate America. The local YMCAs are working with other programs, such as Step One in Hamilton County, to help make it easier to be healthy, he said.
"Our efforts are united," he said.
Implementing changes in the schools and reaching children at a young age is the best hope for decreasing obesity rates, said Dr. Billy Arant, pediatrician and hypertension specialist in Chattanooga.
Very few obese adults have success at turning their health around on a long-term basis, he said.
"Once they get afraid and they realize the fat is killing them, it's sometimes too late," he said.
Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...