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Released January 27, 2004


HATTIESBURG -- An alarming number of Mississippi's children and youth are falling victim to what has been described by leading medical and nutrition experts as a major health crisis, according to a study conducted at the The University of Southern Mississippi.

The study, titled The Child and Youth Prevalence of Overweight Survey (CAYPOS) and conducted in collaboration with the Epidemiology Office of the State Department of Health, examined Mississippi children in first through eighth grades using a sampling methodology from the Centers for Disease Control. The two-month survey of more than 1,600 students in 37 randomly selected schools across the state in 2003 found that 26.9 percent of those in first grade were overweight or at risk of being overweight, and that by eighth grade, the percentage rose to more than four out of every ten students.

Overall, 24 percent of students in first through eighth grades were found to be overweight, and another 15 percent were at risk of being overweight, giving a combined total of 39 percent, or two out of every five children. The combined frequency of those overweight and at risk for being overweight tended to increase through the grades, from 27 percent in first grade to 43 percent in eighth grade. The figures were slightly higher in nonwhites (40 percent) than whites (37 percent); there was virtually no difference between males and females.

According to Dr. Jerome Kolbo, professor of social work at Southern Miss and a member of the team conducting the study, the survey is the first of its kind in the state and nation. It was funded through a grant from the Bower Foundation, a private, non-profit foundation, which supports research regarding health and health care in Mississippi.

Prior to this survey, no data were available on obesity in elementary school children in the state. Previous estimates of obesity in middle school children were based on height and weight data from the Mississippi Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS), deemed by some researchers as less accurate and reliable because students are asked to self-report their height and weight. The Southern Miss / MSDH survey used actual height and weight measurements taken by trained staff, usually school nurses, Kolbo said.

Ultimately, Kolbo said, the problem is related to diet and lifestyle. "While fast food is part of the problem, it is tied to more meals eaten out of the home, super-sizing (both at home and at the fast-food restaurant), economics and work schedules (both parents having to work outside the home), lack of opportunities for and willingness to engage in physical activity," he said.

In Mississippi, as in many other southern states, a culinary culture that includes an affinity for fried foods is yet another factor in the propensity for weight gain among the state's youth. Although some overweight children will shed the excess weight as they grow and develop, many, perhaps even one half, will become overweight adults who will suffer all the adverse medical consequences which accompany the condition, including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease.

"This is a public health disaster just unfolding before our eyes," said Dr. Alan Penman, the MSDH epidemiologist who analyzed the survey data, "with very serious implications for the health of future generations of Mississippi adults."

Nationally, U.S. teens are more likely to be overweight than are teens from 14 other industrialized nations, according to survey information collected in 1997 and 1998 by two agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services as well as institutions in 13 European countries and in Israel. The study appears in the January issue of The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Dr. Mary Kay Meyer, a registered dietician and a senior research scientist with the National Food Service Management Institute at Southern Miss, said the strongest indication of the impact of diet on our culture is that so many kids enter first grade with a weight problem. Children come to school accustomed to fast food and expect the school lunch to include the same type of items they've been getting from the drive-thru, she said.

"Usually with overweight kids, we see overweight adults (parents)," Meyer said. "It's a bigger problem than just school meals. It's an actual issue with families." Hectic lifestyles that find parents balancing careers with driving kids to and from activities makes it harder for the family to gather together for a family meal, which tends to be healthier, lower in calories, fat and sodium, and more likely to include vegetables and fruit.

"When I was growing up, we played outside in the afternoon, softball or other sports," Meyer said. "Now parents have to take their kids to all these organized activities - they're almost like activity directors." Such a lifestyle, she said, makes gathering at the family dinner table a unique event and ordering out for meals the norm.

"The trend can be reversed, Southern Miss researchers say, if a commitment is made by parents, educators and school officials, and other members of the community to make lifestyle and cultural changes. Making such changes should start in the preschool years," Kolbo said. "With so many coming to school overweight, we need to begin working with the children and parents long before first grade. The preschool years offer much promise when children, parents, teachers, and health care providers all come together to convey the same information and opportunities about healthy living as it relates to physical activity and nutrition."

Dr. Nancy Speed, coordinator of the physical education program at Southern Miss and a member of the team conducting the study, concurs with Kolbo. Along with changes in diet, another key to stopping the trend in its tracks, Speed said, is to once again make physical education an integral part of elementary and secondary school curriculum. "We need to make regular physical activity and exercise a part of everyone's daily lifestyle," Speed said. "We need to restore daily, mandatory physical education in schools for all grades."

"A quality physical education program which focuses on fitness should include fitness assessment to educate students and their parents on their current state of fitness," Speed said. "Many fitness assessments are packaged with a curriculum guide of activities to use to improve physical fitness. However, the key is to actually deliver these activities to schoolchildren."

In many instances, for adults to admit that they or their children have a weight problem is critical to affecting change. "Many adults deny that they or their children are overweight or obese and don't want to change," Speed said. "That makes lifestyle changes difficult for children and youth."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM