Advocates Concerned Over Changes In Arkansas Obesity Report Cards For Students

Sunday, September 9th 2007, 7:14 pm
By: News On 6

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ Teenager Jeffery Trimble used to wolf down as many as six cheeseburgers in a day and wasn't worried about being overweight. But then his school sent home an obesity report card.

``They let me know that I was at risk of having things like diabetes and a heart attack if I kept going the way I was,'' Jeffery said. ``I knew I was overweight, but I didn't know how bad it could be.''

The 16-year-old Jeffery changed his diet, started exercising and dropped 35 pounds.

Four years ago, Arkansas became the first state in the nation to track the number of overweight students in its schools. School officials say it has helped improve the state's childhood obesity rate, and a new report due Monday is expected to show that more Arkansas school children are winning their own battle of the bulge.

Health researchers, however, fear recent changes to the law could tip the scales the other way. Students will be weighed only every two years and it's now easier for parents to take them out of the program.

``The risk is that many parents who needed that screening information will now opt out,'' said Wendy Ward-Begnoche, a pediatric psychologist at Arkansas Children's Hospital. ``Parents often underestimate the weight status of their child.''

Arkansas' initial law, pushed by former Gov. Mike Huckabee, called on schools to measure students each year and report to their parents whether pupils were overweight or were at risk of becoming overweight. Huckabee, now a Republican presidential candidate, championed the program as he lost more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with diabetes.

Some parents and legislators complained that putting into words what was obvious from afar _ that some kids are overweight _ was hurting some children's self-esteem. Legislators this year considered scrapping the program entirely but then voted to reduce the number of weigh-ins and make it easier for students to leave the testing program.

State health officials defend the changes, saying that cutting the number of children who are tracked doesn't mean the state is turning its back on efforts to combat childhood obesity.

Jim Raczynski, dean of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' College of Public Health, said the reliability of the reports will now depend on the number of students who don't want their body mass index tracked.

``If the children that opt out _ or the parents who opt out _ are the more overweight children, the data will be skewed,'' Raczynski said. ``It will look like there are fewer overweight children when in fact there aren't.''

Last year, a study showed that the percentage of Arkansas children who were overweight or at risk of becoming overweight was 37.5 percent, down from 38.1 percent in 2004. University figures from a later study showed that 68 percent of parents and 85 percent of students said they were comfortable with the reports.

When Arkansas adopted the BMI testing program, the state ranked third in the nation in obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many states have adopted their own testing programs.

Jeffery, a student at Little Rock Central High School, said he was initially uncomfortable with being weighed at his school each year. A BMI report that listed him as obese motivated him to cut down on the cheeseburgers, pizza and other junk food items that he said were staples of his diet, and he exercises on a nearly daily basis.

``Now I know it's OK to eat those things, but only moderately,'' he said. ``It was nothing for me to eat six cheeseburgers in a day.''

Arkansas Surgeon General Joe Thompson said the state will still be able to reach out to children like Jeffery with its BMI report cards and through other measures, such as limits on junk food sales at schools.

``After four years of reporting to every parent, we are transferring some of the responsibility back to the parents,'' Thompson said. ``That's an imbalance that's OK.''