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Carolinas rank high in childhood obesity

N.C. ranks 5th, S.C. 7th in national study

WASHINGTON -- The Carolinas are rearing some of the country's most overweight kids, with nearly one in five tipping the scales at unhealthy weights, a nationwide study of obesity released Monday says.

North Carolina ranks fifth and South Carolina ranks seventh with about 19 percent of children ages 10 to 17 considered overweight, according to the fourth annual report called "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America." The Trust for America's Health, a health advocacy group, did the study.

South Carolina's adults aren't faring much better in the choices they make about eating and exercise. They ranked fifth worst in the nation, tied with Tennessee, with 28 percent of state residents classified as obese.

North Carolina ranked 17th with nearly 26 percent of adults reaching obesity.

Obesity can vary depending on a person's gender, age, height and body mass. Health officials tend to refer to children as overweight, or at risk of becoming overweight.

N.C. Health Director Leah Devlin said the state's health statistics translate into more diabetes, heart disease and stroke, "not to mention the quality of life issues -- depression, social stigma and ostracizing of obese people in our society."

Several states have begun taking steps to combat what many view as a health epidemic.

South Carolina's State Board of Education, for example, required in 2006 that elementary schools offer a low-fat choice at every meal, the report noted.

North Carolina requires that children in grades kindergarten through eighth grades get at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day, and school cafeterias must offer healthier choices.

Jill Pfankuch, physical activity coordinator at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's division of obesity prevention, worries about the obesity rate for future generations.

"It's going to be a challenge for society and our health-care system when the children grow into adults," she said.

Obesity-related medical costs tallied more than $1 billion in South Carolina in 2003, the latest year available, the state agency said. Taxpayers funded more than half of those costs through Medicare and Medicaid, Pfankuch said.

Cultural traditions, such as fried foods and cooking with fatback, along with poor families who tend to buy food that's inexpensive and low in nutrition, help explain why 10 of the heaviest 15 states are in the South, Pfankuch said.

"But that's a small piece of one of the causes," she said. "Many, many times it goes back to the root causes of physical inactivity and poor nutrition."

One in every four adults in South Carolina report getting no physical activity, according to the report.

South Carolina's adult obesity numbers have worsened with each report by the Trust for America's Health. In 2004, the state ranked 13th with an obesity rate of 24.5 percent.

"There has been a breakthrough in terms of drawing attention to the obesity epidemic. Now, we need a breakthrough in terms of policies and results," said Jeff Levi, the group's executive director. "Poor nutrition and physical inactivity are robbing America of our health and productivity."

Philip Steffes, principal of Charlotte's Merry Oaks Elementary School, said the children are required to be "up moving" -- anything from jumping rope to playing basketball, soccer or football during activity periods.

"This year, we plan to run a special program with any students in our school who are not physically fit and maybe who are a bit overweight," said Angela Baucom, principal of Bailey Middle School in Cornelius. "Our (physical education) teachers are going to do some small-group work with them during that physical activity period."

Baucom said as with other Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, no fried food is offered in the cafeteria and no sweet drinks are available in vending machines. She still sees children bring unhealthy food from home, though.

"One of the things I would encourage is parents who send lunch with children to pay close attention to the fat content of the food they are sending in lunch boxes," she said.

Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, said fixing the national problem requires a major societal shift, such as the one that helped turn around the prevalence of smoking in America.

The problem has to be addressed in schools, in restaurants, on the job and in the home to be effective, said Dr. Jim Marks, a vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which helped fund the study. Problems range from a lack of grocery stores that sell produce and other healthy foods to safety issues that prevent some from exercising outdoors.

Mississippi had the worst obesity rate in the nation for the third year in a row, reaching 30 percent for adults, the report said.

That's a troublesome figure, considering that when today's adults were young, there were far fewer overweight children. "What's the obesity rate going to be for their generation?" asked Jill Pfankuch, physical activity coordinator at the state Department of Health and Environmental Control's division of obesity prevention.

"It's going to be a challenge for society and our health care system when the children grow into adults," she said.

Obesity-related medical costs tallied more than $1 billion in South Carolina in 2003, the latest year available, the state agency said. Taxpayers funded more than half of those costs through Medicare and Medicaid, Pfankuch said.

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