Arkansas Battles an Epidemic of Gigantic Proportion

August 5, 2004 - Posted at 3:41 PM CDT

JONESBORO - In the land of southern-fried catfish, homemade pie and mom's chicken and dumplings lurks a killer. Obesity is an epidemic of huge proportion when it comes to adults (37% in Arkansas are overweight). But, even worse is that the state's children are "weighing in" at risk levels higher than their parents are.

"You're looking at you child, potentially this generation, dying before their parents and that's crazy in an era when we have better medical care, said Dr. Barry Tedder, a Jonesboro cardiologist. "The extra weight in children that leads to adulthood obesity causes an early incidence of diabetes and non-insulin diabetes is on a dramatic rise because of obesity."

Arkansas has seen a 77% increase in obesity from 1991-2000. A whopping 40%, or two of every five Arkansas public school students, are overweight, or at risk of becoming overweight. "It's not just a parent's problem," explains Joy Rockenbach, program director, Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.

ACHI compiled data for on Arkansas school children last spring. Those reports are being mailed out to parents now, on the basis of their zip code. Arkansas was the first state to require students to have Body Mass Index, or BMI calculations. Several parents have questioned whether the assessments were an invasion of privacy.

But, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee calls the assessments "necessary," just like schools would perform a hearing or eye exam on students. "The BMI is no different than a sight or hearing test," says Governor Huckabee. "It says to the parents, your child is either overweight or obese, or maybe your child is of normal body weight. We're not trying to regulate people's behavior, but we are trying to inform people and give them an honest perspective of where their children are, so they as parents can be empowered with that information to make good parenting decisions."

Margaret Steen of Jonesboro looks at her grandson, Tristen Graves, with great concern. The 3 ½ year old weighed 60 pounds just a few months ago. "That's not a good start," Steen says. "I'm a diabetic and I worry about him. "It's in my side of the family and so that makes it even more difficult for him to overcome this. But if he doesn't overcome this while he's small, what's going to happen when he gets 15 or 16?"

Under the advice of his pediatrician, Tristen is on a diet of low-fat, no-sugar foods with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Gone are his favorite fast food kid's meals. "He really, really liked the kid's meals, but they're so fattening," says Steen.

But, losing weight leads to a healthier lifestyle, according to the governor, who now weighs 105 less than he did a year ago. Huckabee hopes his weight loss and exercise will motivate others in the state. He's mapped plans for a "Healthier Arkansas" to look like this:

Increasing from 64 percent to 85 percent the number of children active three times weekly for more than 20 minutes.

Increasing from 15 percent to 30 percent the number of adults who exercise at least three times a week for 30 minutes.

Reduce youth smoking from 36 percent to 16 percent.

Reduce adult smoking from 24 percent to 12 percent.

Reduce obesity from 11 percent to 5 percent in children.

Reduce adult obesity from 23 percent to 15 percent.

The governor's plan emphasizes regular exercise. But, Dr. Jim Farris, Assistant Professor, A.S.U. Health Professions, says there's been a gradual eroding of physical education requirements in public schools.

"There was an idea shift from competitiveness to just being out there. Just being active and having good self-esteem, instead of keeping the fitness levels. Instead of challenging kids to help them improve their self-esteem, improve their levels of fitness, they just kind of let them do whatever they want," said Dr. Farris.

"That hasn't been beneficial to the kids."