MONDAY, May 3 (HealthDay News) -- For American children, where they are raised may be a strong predictor of whether they'll become obese or not.
A new study finds that nearly half of kids nationwide are now overweight (32 percent) or obese (16 percent), with rates of childhood obesity much higher in Southern states than in other regions.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years and remains high among both boys and girls of all ages and racial and ethnic groups.
However, "you do see substantial disparities in obesity from state-to-state," said lead researcher Gopal K. Singh, a senior epidemiologist at the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.
Mississippi had the highest rate of childhood obesity at nearly 22 percent of kids surveyed, while Oregon had the lowest at 9.6 percent. The most children in the "overweight" (but not obese) category were also in Mississippi, at 44.5 percent, while Utah with about 23 percent had the fewest overweight children.
But the findings also offer a glimmer of hope that the epidemic of childhood obesity can be curbed.
Singh noted that if strategies to reduce obesity used in states such as Oregon and Utah were applied to states such as Mississippi, "there is a strong potential for obesity reduction."
The report is published in the May 3 online edition of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
For the study, Singh's team used the National Survey of Children's Health Data to collect data on more than 6,700 children ages 10 to 17 who were surveyed in 2003 and more than 44,000 children who were surveyed in 2007.
From 2003 to 2007, obesity increased by 10 percent for all children and by 18 percent among girls. But those trends weren't uniform. For example, over the same time period the level of childhood obesity in Oregon fell by 32 percent -- even as it doubled among girls in Arizona and Kansas.
Overall, children in Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Georgia and Kansas were twice as likely to be obese than in Oregon, the researchers noted.
And across the United States, more girls were overweight or obese than boys, Singh's group found.
These patterns of obesity among children mirror those of adults, Singh said. In 2007 Southern states -- including Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee -- were in the top one-fifth for both childhood and adult obesity. Obesity was highest for both adults and children in Southern states and lowest in the Western states, the researchers say.
Exercise, or lack thereof, seems to be a prime culprit. Children in the South tend to have "more sedentary behaviors, such as TV watching," Singh said. "The tend to also score lower on having access to places for physical activity," he said.
In addition, Singh noted that American children from lower-income families also tended to be at greater risk of being obese or overweight, compared with their wealthier counterparts.
"Prevention programs for reducing disparities in childhood obesity should not only include behavioral interventions aimed at reducing children's physical inactivity levels and limiting their television viewing and recreational screen time, but should also include social policy measures aimed at improving the broader social and physical environments that create 'obesogenic' conditions that put children at risk for poor diet, physical inactivity and other sedentary activities," the researchers conclude.
Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine said that, "the point of this study is to provide the state-by-state picture of childhood obesity trends, but it would be a mistake not to take in the big picture -- childhood obesity and overweight increased by roughly 10 percent nationwide from 2003 to 2007. Clearly, that news is not good, if unsurprising."
The state-specific view is also important, Katz said.
"Childhood obesity rates rose in many states, particularly southern states, but there was an actual decline in Oregon, suggesting that a combination of resources and dedication can reverse trends that have persisted for far too long," he said. "Building on effective strategies in states performing best, and disseminating those strategies to states lagging well behind, is the challenge."
For more information on childhood obesity, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.