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Report: Arizona among worst in the nation for childhood obesity

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect title for Adrienne Udarbe. She is a registered dietitian with the Arizona Department of Health Services. The story below has been updated to reflect the correct information. Clients who used the previous version of the story are asked to run the correction that can be found here.

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WASHINGTON – Arizona had the seventh-highest rate of obesity in 2011 for children ages 10 to 17, says a new report unveiled Thursday in a Capitol Hill briefing.

The report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said 19.8 percent of Arizona youth were obese, compared to a high of 21.7 percent in Mississippi and a low of 9.9 percent in Oregon.

Arizona was the only Western state to rank in the 10 worst – the rest were in the South or the Midwest, according to “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future.”

The increase in Arizona youth obesity came as the national rate was declining, according to the 2011 National Survey of Children’s Health, one of the sources on which the report is based. The survey said the U.S. rate fell from 16.4 percent in 2007 to 15.7 percent in 2011, while Arizona’s rate grew from 17.8 percent to 19.8 percent in that time.

The national decrease might not be significant, but Arizona posted a “substantial increase,” said Peter Fisher, a researcher with the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, which conducted the survey.

While “being in the top (of the childhood obesity list) is not good,” the spread from top to bottom – less than 12 percentage points – “isn’t huge,” said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health.

“These are very, very tight numbers, so it doesn’t take that much to get into the top 10,” Levi said. But he also noted that the Arizona numbers are “obviously increasing, and that’s not good.”

Obesity in children can severely impact their health while they are still developing, Fisher said, leading to a wide range of problems. The report said annual health costs for an obese child average nearly $6,800, compared to an average of $2,450 per child for all children.

Chronic diseases such as early-onset heart disease used to be problems only seen in adults, said Arizona Department of Health Services registered dietitian Adrienne Udarbe, but she said youth obesity is tied to increasing incidence of such problems in children. Udarbe said obesity also impacts daily life.

“Healthy students learn better and they perform better,” she said.

The increase in childhood obesity was in an age group that Udarbe said gets more “exposure to screens” such as TVs and computers, with limited opportunity for physical activity. But changing the trend requires a coordinated effort at home, in schools and in the community, she said.

“It can’t just be the sole burden of the youth themselves in order to tackle the problem, or just the schools,” Udarbe said.

Obesity in youth and in adults can lead to higher incidence of health problems. But while the rate of obesity among adults appears to have slowed, according to the report, experts say efforts to combat obesity may take decades to show results.

While “it’s really easy to paint it as a (national) epidemic,” Fisher said, he also pointed to the many efforts underway to fight the trend of childhood obesity.

Levi said there is no “magic bullet.”

“But the places that have shown the most progress are where the community has come together to look at the opportunities across the board, with a particular focus on the schools,” he said.

What those communities have in common, Levi said, are longer-term efforts and the use of multiple strategies. Those can include improving nutrition in schools, increasing access to fresh food at farmers’ markets and getting supermarkets to open in poorer neighborhoods where obesity is often prevalent.

In Arizona, Udarbe said her office is working to help cities plan safe walking and biking paths and make organized sports for children more affordable. Over half the markets in the state’s Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program accept the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps, or SNAP – and Electronic Benefits Transfer for payments.

School districts that worked to engage entire families in making healthy choices, such as Mesa and Tucson, have had the best results, Udarbe said. But she added that reversing the trend around will require a long-term commitment.

“We’ve manufactured physical activity out of our daily lives,” Udarbe said. “We prioritized convenience and now it’s posed a risk. That’s going to take time to undo the consequences.”