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For W.Va. kids, 'We can't let up'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With West Virginia's childhood obesity rates holding steady or declining -- depending on whose data you're looking at -- health leaders say now is the time to continue efforts to reverse the state's unhealthy trends.

"We're seeing a lot of signs it's getting better but, no, we can't let up," said Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, the medical director for the Children's Medicine Center at Charleston Area Medical Center. "We have to have sustainable strategies. We really have to look at the policies and system that are affecting the environment of our children."

According to new statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia was among several states that saw no significant change in the obesity rates of children ages 2 to 4 between the years of 2008 and 2011.

Local data are more hopeful. According to data from Coronary Artery Risk Detection in Appalachian Communities, a project that has measured school-age children in the state for the past 15 years, West Virginia's obesity rate among fifth-graders decreased from 30.5 in the 2005-06 school year to 27.8 in the 2011-12 school year.

For the same years, the obesity rate for kindergartners was down, from 15.7 percent to 13.6 percent.

"Either way, we're not going up and that is a huge success in my mind," said Jeffrey, who also heads up the KEYS for Healthy Kids initiative and is an associate professor of pediatrics.

The Children's Medicine Center saw positive results in its own study between the years of 2007 and 2012, Jeffrey said. The study found, in 2007, children's obesity rates began to spike starting at age 3. Last year, that peak started two years later, at age 5, Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey attributes success in the leveling off or decline of childhood obesity rates to increased awareness, policy changes and initiatives aimed at lowering the obesity rates.

Drinking sugary beverages is one of the biggest contributors to childhood obesity, Jeffrey said. That's why many states are considering imposing or raising taxes on them, she said.

Jeffrey said the state has to continue to lower its childhood obesity rate if it hopes to have a healthy workforce when today's schoolchildren are in their 20s.

However, she said, programming and education are not enough to reverse the state's health problems. There also must be environmental changes. That includes having healthy choices.

"If you know you're not supposed to drink pop but you go to a church picnic and the only thing that's available is pop, are you not going to have anything to drink?" Jeffrey said. "If you're a kid and you're offered pop, are you not going to drink it?"

State Sen. Ron Stollings, a Boone County physician and chairman of the Committee on Health and Human Resources, said new federal legislation that sets limits for fat, salt and sugar in snacks sold at schools will help lower the childhood obesity rates.

Giving people access to places to exercise also will help, Stollings said, noting that allowing a community to use school property for exercising would be ideal.

"It's just something that's not going to change overnight," Stollings said. "It's going to be slow, and it's going to take a sustained effort on everybody's part."

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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