updated 6/3/2004 5:48:41 PM ET 2004-06-03T21:48:41

Forty percent of public schoolchildren in Arkansas are overweight, and nearly one in four is obese, a sign that obesity among children nationwide is probably far worse than health officials had thought.

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The findings are the broadest and most recent comprehensive look at children’s weights, the result of a state law in Arkansas, where state officials have made obesity a top issue.

“I think we’ll find as we go along that Arkansas is not that much more obese than other parts of the country,” said Dr. Carden Johnston, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “(The) Arkansas data is the best that we have because it’s cross-sectional.”

The Arkansas numbers paint a more dire picture than previous national studies. Those have indicated that about 30 percent of American children are overweight or obese. Those falling into the obese category account for about 15 percent.

In Arkansas, about 22 percent of the children are considered obese while 18 percent are merely overweight. Fifty-eight percent are normal weight, and 2 percent underweight.

Those results, released Thursday in Williamsburg, Va., at a Time-ABC News obesity summit, represent 276,000 of Arkansas’ 450,000 public school students.

“This is a childhood issue now and it’s sobering to see the number of children who have it,” Johnston said. “The whole society will take obesity more seriously.”

State takes action
Arkansas already has removed vending machines from elementary school campuses and set up a Child Health Advisory Committee to help parents get their children to normal weights.

“I hope we start seeing results immediately,” said Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has lost more than 100 pounds since being diagnosed last year with diabetes. “A year from now we’ll know parents are taking this seriously and encouraging healthier habits ... some as simple as saying, ’You’re not going to sit in front of the computer screen with a bag of potato chips.”’

Last year Arkansas legislators passed a law requiring schools to find out the body-mass index of all schoolchildren and report to their parents. Health officials say the benefit of spotting at-risk children outweighs the stigma of branding them as too heavy.

“...It is more harmful not to identify the child as overweight,” Johnston said. Studies show that childhood obesity can lead to diabetes and heart disease.

Nationwide, two-thirds of American adults are classified as either overweight or obese by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And while some studies indicate a higher rate of people in the South are overweight than the national average, some researchers believe the Arkansas numbers are reflective of children across the country.

“This is a trend we’re seeing nationwide. The lack of physical activity, the nutritional behaviors that we have developed over the years didn’t start in Arkansas and it’s not going to end in Arkansas,” said Joy Rockenbach, program director at the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, which conducted the study. “If other states were collecting this info, we wouldn’t see a difference.”

Changes at home needed
Individual findings are sent to the students’ parents with guidelines on a healthy lifestyle. Because the BMI calculation doesn’t consider muscle mass, parents are asked to take overweight children to a doctor to see if their child is truly unhealthy.

“A parent may be aware that the child is overweight,” Huckabee said, but may not realize the “very serious medical consequences” of obesity.

Johnston said the Arkansas study, because it is so far-reaching, will enable researchers to compare data across socio-economic and racial groups and identify trends.

Experts say children develop most eating habits in their home and changing attitudes there is important in the battle against obesity.

Carrie Roberson of Arkadelphia took her fourth-grade son to the doctor when his weight problem was diagnosed through the new school policy — and he changed his behavior himself.

“We were not concerned about his health, it was just kind of having the heads-up that if we didn’t watch the snacks and lack of physical activity he’s in jeopardy,” she said. “It was very good information. Having any kind of indicator on how we can keep our children healthy as a parent is useful.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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