UGA Study shows more Georgia children than previously thought are overweight

ATHENS, Ga — Nearly 42 percent of a sample of Georgia fourth graders are either overweight or at risk of becoming overweight, according to the findings of a study conducted by University of Georgia researchers.

The numbers for students in eighth and 11th grade aren’t much better, according to Richard Lewis, professor of foods and nutrition in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences, who presented his research Friday morning as part of the Biomedical and Health Sciences
Institute Symposium on campus.

“We tested a total of 3,473 students in grades four, eight and 11 in four regions of Georgia,” Lewis said. The regions represent urban, suburban, rural growth and rural decline areas of the state. Unlike earlier studies in the state, Lewis’s is the first to take height and weight measurements for those participating in the study. Based on those measurements, the body mass index for each student was established. BMI is considered a simple but accurate method for determining whether a person is overweight.

Children’s body fatness changes over the years as they grow. Also, girls and boys differ in their body fatness as they mature. This is why BMI for children is gender and age specific, according to Lewis. For example, a 9-1/2-year-old boy who stands 4 feet, 9 inches tall and weighs 90 pounds, would be considered at risk for being overweight. If that same child gains 10 pounds, he would be considered overweight and at higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and Type II diabetes, health conditions that were once considered adult diseases. For a 9-1/2-year-old girl of the same height, she would be considered at-risk for being overweight if she weighed 91 pounds and overweight if she weighed 105 pounds.

For students in eighth grade, the study showed 38 percent were overweight or at risk for overweight. For 11th graders, the percentage was nearly 36 percent. Students were considered overweight if their body mass index was at or above the 95th percentile for other children
of their same age and gender. Those included in the overweight and at-risk for being overweight had BMIs that were at the 85th percentile or higher.

Somewhat surprisingly, Lewis’ study showed that children living in rural areas were more likely to be overweight than those living in suburban or urban areas. Nearly 41 percent of those living in rural decline areas were overweight or at-risk for being overweight; the figure for rural growth areas was 38.2 percent; for suburban areas it was 36.4 percent; and for urban areas it was 33.3 percent. Rural growth and rural decline areas are defined based on whether they are experiencing population and economic growth or decline.

Other interesting findings include:

* Overweight prevalence was higher in African Americans than white, non-Hispanic participants;

* Overweight prevalence was higher for males than females, except when ethnicity was taken into account. In that case, African-American females had a higher prevalence than African-American males and white, non-Hispanic females.

The percentages of overweight determined by Lewis are significantly higher than those found in earlier reports, such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES) conducted in 1999-2000 and the Youth Tobacco Survey (YTS) conducted in 2001. For fourth graders, Lewis’ research showed 24.8 percent as being overweight, compared to the NHANES study which showed only 15.3 percent of children between the ages of six and 11 as being overweight. For eighth graders, Lewis’ study showed 19.1 percent as overweight; the NHANES found 15.5 percent of children between 12 and 19 years of age were overweight, and the YTS
had a figure of 13.8 percent for eighth graders. For 11th graders, Lewis’ study showed 21.7 percent as being overweight, while YTS had a figure of only 10.8 percent. YTS did not report figures for fourth graders. YTS relied on phone interviews with parents and/or self-reporting by the children. NHANES did actual measurements of children, but the data is a national sample, rather than focusing only on Georgians.

In addition to establishing the BMI for participants, Lewis and his colleagues also gathered survey information on a variety of issues.

For example, nearly 77 percent of overweight fourth graders, 83 percent of overweight eighth graders, and nearly 85 percent of overweight 11th graders said they have tried to lose weight. Among those considered as having normal weight, the percentage who have tried to lose weight
drops to about 41 percent for each of the three groups.

Nearly 88 percent of eighth graders and 83 percent of 11th graders who are overweight said they would like to lose weight. That figure drops to about 33 percent for those who are in the normal weight range.


The percentage of participants who were identified as being overweight who actually recognized that fact showed wide variance. Just over 48 percent of overweight fourth-graders considered themselves overweight. For eighth-graders, that figure jumps to 57 percent, while 69.5 percent

of overweight 11th graders identified themselves as such. Among children who are of average weight in each of the three groups, only about 14 percent thought they were overweight.

“The next step is to look more closely at specific factors that may have an impact on children’s weight, such as their access to recreation and their knowledge of nutrition,” Lewis said. “We also need to continue to emphasize the importance of gathering actual measurement data rather than relying on self-reporting since there clearly is a difference in accuracy.”

Lewis’ study was conducted in partnership with the Georgia Department of Community Health, the Georgia Department of Human Resources, and the Georgia Center for Obesity and Related Disorders.