More Utah boys than girls are overweight or obese, and boys are gaining weight at a dramatic pace between first and fifth grades.
But overall, the rate at which elementary school students are overweight and obese appears unchanged between 2010 and 2012, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the Utah Department of Health.
The report is based on 4,477 children in the first, third and fifth grades, who were weighed and measured between January and May. They attended 69 public elementary schools from Washington to Cache counties.
More boys than girls were overweight or obese in every grade. While 17 percent of boys were at unhealthy weights in first grade, 28 percent were overweight or obese by fifth grade, compared to twenty percent of fifth grade girls.
There's no good data on why more boys are heavy, but state health department staffers speculate there are two reasons: Boys are targeted more aggressively by marketing for sugar-sweetened drinks, and boys generally spend more time in front of screens, particularly video games.
"Can we prove it? No," said Rebecca Fronberg, program manager for the state's Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity (PANO) program.
That would take more research, drilling down into the behavior of each child, she said.
Fronberg said there is not enough data to discern whether weight is more of an issue in rural or urban schools, in low-income or high-income neighborhoods, or where there is more or less ethnic diversity. The 69 schools were picked, however, to provide a good cross-section of Utah elementary students, she said.
"The takeaway is we need to be aware that we would like our kids to be healthy and strong and we'd like them to grow up," said Fronberg. "We want our kids to be able to live long lives, and hopefully outlive us."
Heavy children are beginning to experience many adult diseases such as diabetes, high-blood pressure and fatty liver disease, she said. There are social and psychological effects as well.
"They get bullied more, are teased more and generally have lower self esteem," she said.
In 1994, 16.9 percent of Utah's 3rd graders were at an unhealthy weight, compared to 21.3 percent in 2012. The percentage of obese children has more than tripled since the 1960s, Fronberg noted.
She recommends watching this year's HBO series about obesity, The Weight of the Nation, and particularly the episode about childhood obesity. It can be viewed for free http://theweightofthenation.hbo.com/films/main-films/Crisis.
Fronberg said neither the new study nor previous ones have found that Gold Medal schools, those that provide more physical fitness and healthier food, have lower rates of overweight or obese children. Of Utahs 556 public elementaries, 169 are Gold Medal schools.
For the new report, Utah children were assessed by their body mass index, or BMI, a standardized measurement based on height and weight to estimate body fat. Children were considered overweight if they were between the 85th and 95th percentile for their age and gender, and obese if they were above the 95th percentile.
Overall numbers include:
• In 2012, 9.4 percent of elementary school students were obese, similar to 2010 when 9.7 percent were obese.
• In 2012, 20.8 percent of elementary school students were at an unhealthy weight. The rate in 2010 was similar at 20.4 percent.
Every day, the state urges, parents should aim for their children to:
• Get at least 60 minutes of physical activity;
• Eat at least 1½ to 2 cups of fruit and 1½ to 3 cups of vegetables;
• Rarely consume sugar-sweetened drinks and high-calorie foods with little or no nutritional value;
• Limit screen time (television, computer, and video games) to no more than two hours per day.
Got an idea?
Schools and community-based nonprofits can apply for grants of up to $1,000 from UnitedHealthcare to fund efforts to fight childhood obesity.
Programs must include an activity in which kids count their steps and a service component. To learn more, visit www.YSA.org/HEROES. The application deadline is midnight EST on Oct. 15.
Childhood Overweight in Utah, 2012
To find the new report and tips for helping kids reach healthy weights, visit www.choosehealth.utah.gov.
An average 10-year-old boy who is 4 feet, 8 inches tall is considered overweight if he weighs at least 87 pounds, and obese if he weighs 99 pounds.
An average 10-year-old girl who is the same height is considered overweight at 89 pounds and obese at 103 pounds.
The Centers for Disease Control has a helpful website to learn about childhood obesity at http://tinyurl.com/yewbvqf. Follow links from there to determine a child's body-mass index and whether he or she is overweight or obese.