Study shows obesity rates dropping

Published 12:11 am Sunday, July 21, 2013

NATCHEZ — Mississippi elementary school aged children are losing enough pounds to help the Magnolia State earn a new ranking in childhood obesity rates.

A report released last week by the Center for Mississippi Health Policy shows obesity rates for children from kindergarten to fifth grade declined by 13.3 percent between 2005 and 2011.

The center’s study examined height and weight data collected by school nurses for approximately 4,000 Mississippi students from kindergarten to fifth grade to determine the number of students who are overweight or obese. The student’s body mass index (BMI) was calculated from the child’s weight, height, age and gender.

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The study found a major shift in direction after decades of steady increases in the number of obese and overweight students, with the combined rate dropping from about 43 percent in 2005 to 37.3 percent in 2011.

Credit for the decline, Center executive director Therese Hanna said, can be attributed to reform in Mississippi public schools that began in 2007 to implement health programs and set new nutritional standards in schools.

“We continued to see increases and increases in the numbers, so when it began to level off in 2009 we didn’t know if it was anything significant at the time,” Hanna said. “But then in 2011, the study showed there was a large drop in the combined prevalence of overweight and obesity for elementary students.

“It’s very good news because this is the future of our state.”

The study also examined the impact of the Healthy Students Act, which the Legislature passed in 2007. The act required public schools to use healthier cooking methods, such as eliminating deep fat frying, offer more nutritious meals, provide more time for physical activity and develop health education programs.

The report shows major school transformations, including more schools at which at least 75 percent of students get health education. That rate doubled between 2006 and 2008.

Schools also made strides in improving nutritional quality of the foods they served, including serving whole-grain foods daily, replacing deep fat fryers with convection ovens and steamers, serving a variety of fruits and reducing fat content in milk.

Natchez-Adams School District food service supervisor Shantoura Spears said it took a while for students to adapt to the new food options, but now they don’t think twice about the healthy foods.

“At first they were kind of skeptical about picking up that whole grain hot dog bun, but they’ve grown used to them,” Spears said. “It was a little different for them at first, but now they’re more susceptible to pick up more healthy foods and fruits and vegetables.”

Students in NASD schools no longer have a choice for whole milk, but instead must choose between one percent and skim milk, Spears said.

“The spaghetti, pastas, breads and rolls are all whole grains, and we’ve been doing that for a while now,” she said. “We’re offering healthier foods for the kids.”

Spears said she was told about the rate declines at a conference last week and was overcome with joy.

“It made me feel like we’re really doing something that’s benefiting the children,” she said. “We’re finally seeing the results of all the work and seeing the kids adapting to a healthy lifestyle.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Bower Foundation provided support for the research to be conducted.

Dr. James Marks, vice president of the RWJF Health Group, said any decline in a state with historically high obesity rates is a good sign.

“Mississippi has been the state with the highest obesity rate in the nation and one we’ve been concerned with about for future and current health effects,” Marks said. “We knew Mississippi was making changes, but we didn’t know if they’d be strong enough and widespread enough to create the change that was needed.

“Mississippi ought to feel good about the results.”