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By Willoughby Mariano November 8, 2010

Hospital says Georgia's kids second-fattest in nation

The news was enough to make the AJC PolitiFact Georgia scribe toss her leftover Halloween candy corn to the squirrels.

"Georgia has the second-highest rate of childhood obesity in the United States," said a recent news release from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, a hospital that specializes in pediatric care.

Second? Out of all the states in the union? Are Georgia kids really that hefty?
Yes, we felt guilty. One PolitiFact Georgia reporter had spent a recent afternoon dressed as a witch, handing out fistfuls of sweets to trick-or-treaters. 

Childhood obesity can lead to diabetes, high cholesterol and other potentially deadly problems. It also places more burdens on the health care system.

We called a spokeswoman for Children's Healthcare Atlanta, who pointed us to "F as in Fat," a report issued by the Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit group that specializes in disease prevention.

Sure enough, there Georgia was, second only to Mississippi in 2007 for obesity rates among 10- to 17-year-olds. In this state, 21.3 percent of children were obese, the report said. Mississippi's rate was 21.9 percent.

The report defined an "obese" child as one with a body mass index greater than the 95th percentile for his age group.

For instance, a 10-year-old boy with a height of 4 foot 6 inches and weighing 100 pounds would be obese. That's because his body mass index is 24.1, which is in the 97th percentile of his age group.  

Of the 10 states with the highest childhood obesity rates, nine were in the South, the report said.  

Children in Western states tended to be far more svelte. Eight of the 10 states with the lowest obesity rates were located in that region.

The trust used figures from the National Survey of Children's Health, an effort funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The telephone survey asks parents for their children's ages, races, genders, weights and heights.

Almost all the state-by-state rankings we found were based on data from that same survey. Understandably, they came up with similar results. 

The National Kids Count Program, run by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, used the same data to rank Georgia third in 2007. 

Its analysis ranked a slightly different group of kids: the number of children age 10-17 who are overweight as well as obese. Those are children whose body mass index is above the 85th percentile for their age and gender.

A set of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided different results, but this survey was far from comparable. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System asks high school students in grades nine through 12 to report whether they are obese.

The CDC does not rank states by high school obesity rates, but the data show that in 2009, 12.4 percent of Georgia high schoolers said they were obese. That's the 19th-highest of the states. But again, high schoolers report their own weight for this survey, and they might not be as accurate as their parents.

The CDC does conduct a survey in which children are measured in person, but it doesn't break down the data by state.

Why are Georgia's kids so heavy? We could locate no studies that answer that question, but there are some hints.

The children who are at the highest risk for obesity are minorities or from rural areas, and they make up a large proportion of the state's child population, said Marsha Davis, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies childhood obesity.

In rural areas, parents have trouble getting to supermarkets that sell fruits and vegetables. They end up feeding children with junk food they find at gas station convenience stores.

For instance, the agricultural industry in South Georgia's Colquitt County ships produce across the country but sells very little locally, Davis said. The obesity rate there is extremely high.

So while there is some variance in what surveys tell us, there's widespread agreement that Georgia kids are obese. And by one widely respected measure, Georgia's kids are the second-most obese in the nation. 

Now, that's not to say you need to throw out your kid's stash of Halloween candy.

"Halloween is fun," Davis said. "The problem is we're having Halloween every day."

We rate Children's Healthcare Atlanta's statement True.

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Our Sources

Children's Healthcare Atlanta, news release, Oct. 20, 2010

Trust for America's Health, "F as in Fat," June 2010

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System data, 2009

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kids Count Data Center, accessed Nov. 1, 2010

Data Center for Child & Adolescent Health, accessed Nov. 1, 2010

Interview, Marsha Davis, associate professor, Department of Health Promotion and Behavior, University of Georgia, Nov. 1, 2010

Interview, Dr. Stephanie Walsh, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Nov. 1, 2010

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Hospital says Georgia's kids second-fattest in nation

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