updated 5/28/2004 2:05:18 PM ET 2004-05-28T18:05:18

Texas children are among the fattest in the nation, with black and Hispanic kids at the highest risk for being overweight, a study shows.

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Texas fourth-graders were overweight at a rate 46 percent higher than children of similar age nationally, said Deanna Hoelscher, principal investigator of study, conducted by the University of Texas School of Public Health.

“Parents do need to watch this in their kids,” she said. “What this means is being overweight is a health risk for kids. Parents need to look at that as something they need to take some measures to prevent.”

Researchers collected data from more than 6,000 students in 30 school districts and 132 schools throughout Texas from 1999 to 2001. Hoelscher said the study is one of the first to gather statewide data based on measured height and weight of elementary and secondary students.

22 percent of fourth-graders overweight
The study considered fourth-graders overweight if they were 10 pounds heavier than the national average. Average for a fourth-grade girl who is 4 feet tall, for example, was 64 pounds. The margin for being overweight was 20 pounds for eighth-graders and 30 pounds for 11th-graders.

The study, to be published in next month’s American Journal of Public Health, found 22 percent of fourth-graders, 19 percent of eighth-graders and nearly 16 percent of 11th-graders were overweight. Data from the study’s first year was released Thursday.

Hoelscher said national figures aren’t broken up by specific school grades but the most recent ones show 15.3 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were overweight, while 15.5 percent of kids ages 12 to 19 were carrying extra pounds.

The federal government has set as a goal of having only 5 percent of school-aged children classified as overweight by 2010.

“We’re not close to that,” said Hoelscher, who is also director of the public health school’s human nutrition center.

Childhood obesity reaches 'epidemic proportions'
Marilyn Tanner, a clinical pediatric dietitian at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said the number of overweight children across the country has increased tremendously in the last 15 years and they keep getting younger.

“Now it’s at epidemic proportions,” said Tanner, who also is a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “I’ve had 2-and 3-year-olds come in.”

The percentage of overweight students in Texas was much higher among minorities, Hoelscher said.

For Hispanic boys in all grade levels, Hispanic girls in fourth grade and black girls in the fourth and eighth grades, the percentage of overweight children ranged from 23 percent to nearly 33 percent.

Hoelscher said she has no definitive answers for why Texas children are more overweight.

Cultural differences in food choices, body image and exercise could be possible reasons why minority children have higher rates of being overweight, Tanner said.

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