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Study shows W.Va. child obesity levels are steady

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — While obesity rates among West Virginia’s fifth-graders have remained steady, there have been declines in the prevalence of hypertension, indicators of prediabetes and the mean level of LDL cholesterol.

That’s according to the latest results of the West Virginia University School of Medicine’s CARDIAC Project. The study has been conducted over the past 16 years, and officials said they hope to continue monitoring the health of students well into the future.
The obesity rate has remained steady at around 28 percent. And declines in hypertension and indicators of prediabetes were slight, around 1 percent. However, the mean level of LDL cholesterol has dropped by 10 mg, which is much more significant, according to researchers.
Dr. William Neal
Dr. William Neal

Dr. William A. Neal is director of the project. He interprets the data as meaning children’s diets have improved, but their level of physical activity has not.

“Some of the comorbidities, the things that go along with obesity, like hypertension and prediabetes, are showing favorable improvement,” he said.

The decrease in LDL cholesterol was a welcomed result, Neal said.

“That’s a very favorable outcome and will result in less morbidity and heart disease in another 20 or 30 years,” he said.

Though it is not certain, Neal believes the decreases could have something to do with the improvements the West Virginia Department of Education has made in school nutrition.

“It could be the elimination of trans fat and processed food the state implemented several years ago. The school nutrition programs are infinitely better than they were 10 years ago. Prior to a few years ago, there were just tiny incremental changes in levels of LDL cholesterol,” Neal said.

Richard Goff is executive director of the Office of Child Nutrition at the West Virginia Department of Education. He said West Virginia has worked hard to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to child nutrition. He was pleased to hear the latest data from the CARDIAC Program.

West Virginia’s new standards for child nutrition were adopted in 2008 and came from a set of standards developed by the Institute of Medicine.

And the state’s standards don’t just cover breakfast and lunch. They regulate vending machine snacks and even food served at school parties.

The federal government is planning to implement the same standards this year on a national level.

“When you look at it in total, you realize that children receive two meals per day when they’re in school. I don’t think it would be out of line to say the standards we adopted are having an impact. I don’t see how they wouldn’t,” he said.

Goff said he was surprised to hear that there have been such significant results so soon after the state standards were implemented.

“I think the state board of education hit the nail on the head when they adopted those standards. And it wasn’t easy. There was some pushback because of how progressive they were,” he said.

While diet issues are being addressed, there is still a need for more physical activity in students, Neal said.

“The biggest challenge in terms of lifestyle improvement is getting children to be more active. We have not been able to document an increase in physical activity or an decrease in sedentary activity,” Neal said.

In the 2013-14 school year, 1,333 (30.2 percent) of the state’s 4,421 fifth-graders screened were documented as being obese. The state’s average obesity rate over the 16 years is 28.4 percent.

In Harrison County, 29.1 percent of participating fifth-graders in 2013-2014 were classified as obese.

For other counties in North Central West Virginia, the obesity rate among participating students in 2013-2014 was as follows: Doddridge, 33.3 percent; Lewis, 33.7 percent; Taylor, 24.3 percent; and Upshur, 28.1 percent.

These figures were significantly less than in southern areas of the state, such as McDowell County, where 48.5 of participating fifth-graders were classified as obese.

There’s little doubt that socioeconomic status plays a role in areas with high rates of obesity, Neal said.

“That’s a worldwide phenomenon, as well,” he said. “If you look at the United States as a whole, the entire Southeastern Region stands out as having the same problems,” he said.

Goff said he believes the state is on the right track to combat obesity, but there’s no doubt there’s still work to be done.

“Childhood obesity didn’t develop overnight and we know the solution won’t be found overnight. We have to do it incrementally,” he said.

Staff writer Roger Adkins can be reached at (304) 626-1447 or by email at [email protected]

For more articles and news of central West Virginia visit and subscribe to The Exponent Telegram of Clarksburg.

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