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Childhood obesity in the USA looks significantly worse than previously believed, suggests the largest assessment ever of public school students.
The report, released Thursday, indicates 40% of students in Arkansas are overweight or at risk of becoming so. Currently, the U.S. government estimates that 30% of the nation's kids are overweight or on their way to being too heavy.
Arkansas is one of the nation's poorest states, and low-income adults are known to have high obesity levels. But researchers say the study's numbers show problems across income levels.
''As more data comes in, I think it's going to be this bad everywhere. I don't think it's isolated to Arkansas,'' says Carden Johnston, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
''The epidemic of obesity in children is advancing much more quickly than the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and others predicted,'' says pediatrician Joe Thompson, director of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, a non-profit organization that analyzed the data.
William Dietz of the CDC says, ''Either this reflects an ongoing increase in the prevalence of overweight children or that Arkansas has a more severe problem than other parts of the country. Either way it's bad news.''
Children who weigh too much are at a greater risk of becoming heavy adults, are more likely to have low self-esteem and have a greater chance of developing health complications such as diabetes, high blood pressure and bone and joint problems.
Arkansas is the only state to require that its 450,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade have their height and weight measured to determine their body mass index (BMI), a formula that also considers age and gender.
Among findings reported at the Time/ABC News summit on obesity in Williamsburg, Va.:
* 22% of the students are overweight; 18% show signs of developing weight problems.
* 58% are in the normal weight range; 2% are underweight.
* African-American and Hispanic students are more likely to be overweight or at risk of becoming so than white children.
The state will send letters home to parents this summer. If the child is reported to be overweight, parents will be advised to ask their doctor whether it is a problem, Thompson says.
In some cases, really muscular kids may not actually be overweight, he says. ''One in four of our high school boys are overweight and some of them may have the muscles of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but most clearly have a problem with obesity,'' he says.
Parents of overweight kids are advised to reduce the children's TV time, increase their physical activity and suggest low-calorie beverages.
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