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Kentucky Tops U.S. In Obesity Among High Schoolers, Report Says

Kentucky had the highest percentage of obese high school students in the U.S. in 2013, according to a report released this week  by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundationand nonprofit group Trust for Americans Health.The State of Obesity report said 18 percent of Kentucky high school students were obese.  That places Kentucky just one spot behind the all-time highest high school obesity rate, which was in Mississippi (18.3) in 2009.Nationwide, 13 percent of U.S. high schoolers are obese, according to the report.Kentucky's obesity rate among high school students for 2013, at 18 percent, is a boost from 16.5 percent in 2011—which at the time was third highest in the U.S.. Erica Labar, a pediatrician with University of Louisville Physicians, said the rise in childhood and teenage obesity is the result of a number of factors—most notably a lack of physical activity.“That, combined with an overabundance of high calorie but poor nutrition quality foods, has really contributed to the problem,” she said.

Labar said obesity plagues all populations in Kentuckians but is something she believes can be improved.“When people start to realize and see these problems, my hope is that the rate of obesity will start to decline,” she said.

Kentucky had nearly 200,000 public high school students in 2013, according to the Kentucky Department of Education.  That means Kentucky had about 36,000 obese high school students—more than the entire high-school enrollment of Jefferson County Public Schools.The definition of an obese child or adolescent is a person between ages 2 to 19 who  has a Body Mass Index at or above the 95th percentile for those of the same age and sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control. For an example, a 16-year-old boy who stands 5-foot-7  and weighs 200 pounds would have a Body Mass Index of 31.3, putting him in the 98th percentile.  He would be, by definition, obese.Body Mass Index, or BMI, can be calculated here. The State of Obesity report incorporated data from the 2013 Kentucky Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which was conducted by the Kentucky Department of Education.Here are some facts on Kentucky high school students based on the survey results:

  • 6% did not eat vegetables during the 7 days before the survey. 
  • 8% did not eat fruit or drink 100% fruit juices during the 7 days before the survey.
  • 12% did not eat breakfast during the 7 days before the survey.
  •  15% drank a can, bottle, or glass of soda or pop three or more times per day during the 7 days before the survey. 
  •  22% did not drink milk during the 7 days before the survey.
  • 20% did not participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on at least 1 day. 
  •  66% did not attend physical education classes on 1 or more days in an average week when they were in school.
  •  27% watched television 3 or more hours per day on an average school day.
  •  34% used computers 3 or more hours per day on an average school day. 
  •  49% did not play on at least one sports team run by their school or community groups during the 12 months prior to the survey.
Nancy Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said high school students “usually” complete their physical education requirements during their freshman or sophomore year.The study also said  more than 19 percent of Kentucky children between the ages of 10 and 17 were obese (8th highest rate in U.S.).  Just more than 15 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 4 were obese (5th).As for adults in Kentucky, about 33 percent are considered obese, according to the study.  That gives the state the fifth-highest obesity rate in the U.S..

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.