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Youth obesity in Rhode Island

How healthy are RI’s kids? Read about current statistics and get tips to help your own kids maintain a healthy weight.

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By Susan Gale

An estimated 27% of Rhode Island adults and 15% of high school students were obese in 2014, but we don’t know the exact numbers because there is no statewide data collection.

National studies say that the prevalence of childhood obesity in America has tripled and today, nearly one in three children ages 2-19 is obese (17%) or overweight (15%). Among 42 ranked states in 2013, RI high school students ranked 7th best for the prevalence of obesity but 37th best for the prevalence of being overweight.

In March, Rhode Island KIDS COUNT released an issue brief on child and adolescent obesity in RI. The report looks at data; factors that relate to obesity, such as daily screen time; and physical activity; and provides recommendations. Visit www.RIParentMag.com for a link to the report.

Obesity is medically defined as the presence of excess body fat, which is often estimated using the Body Mass Index (BMI), a ratio of weight to height.

The estimated numbers in RI identify 17% of kindergarteners, 17% of 7th graders, and 11% of high school students as obese. But these numbers are old, as the first two are estimates based on 2010-2011 data and the high school number is based on 2012-2013 data. In addition, they are estimations based on what data was reported but may not truly reflect the population.

According to the KIDS COUNT report, overweight kindergartners are four times as likely as their healthy-weight peers to become obese by the eighth grade; teenagers who are obese have a greater than 70% risk of being obese adults.

Project to collect more RI data

There is movement to work on this problem. Rhode Island has received a State Innovation Model (SIM) test grant of $20 million to work on health issues. One area they are addressing is obesity and working to expand the ability of providers and policy makers to use and store data such as BIM rates.

“We don’t really know, for the whole state, what the obesity rate is. We’re focusing on getting actual data to evaluate the impact on a local level,” said Melissa Lauer of the RI Executive Office of Health and Human Services. “There are pockets of data and we’re trying to bring that together.”

She noted that 25 other states do BMI reporting and suggested that legislative change will be necessary to ensure the state gets the entire picture. It’s important, she said, because it will allow for improving current care and implementing targeted interventions.

What you can do

Here are recommendations to improve your child’s likelihood of not being overweight or obese:

Limit total entertainment screen time to less than two hours per day and discourage screen media exposure for children under age 2. This is a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). While the percentage of RI high school students who watch three or more hours of TV during a school day has decreased by 21% since 2001, time spent on computers for non-school related activities and/or playing video games has increased 46% since 2007.

Have children engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 60 minutes per day. This is another AAP recommendation. While the number of RI high students reporting daily physical activity has increased 27% since 2005, they rank 32nd in meeting this standard among 41 ranked states in 2013.

Make sure your children are receiving enough active time in school. In Rhode Island, students are required to receive an average of 100 minutes per week of health and Physical Education (PE) instruction, according to KIDS COUNT. Nationally, the weekly recommended amount is 150 minutes in elementary school and 225 minutes in middle and high school. Among RI high school students in 2011-2013, 40% reported weekly PE attendance of two or less days, 60% reported three or more days, and 24% reported daily PE attendance.

Increase their intake of fruits and vegetables and limit soda and other sugary drinks. This one is the no brainer we’ve all heard many times, but the numbers tell the story: overall consumption of fruits and vegetables by RI students have declined 24% since 2001 and 78% of students reported eating less than five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Daily soda consumption has declined by 31%, but 22% of students between 2011-2013 reported consuming one or more cans of soda a day.

Susan Gale is Founder and Publisher of Rhode Island Parent Magazine.