- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2007

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Teenager Jeffery Trimble used to wolf down as many as six cheeseburgers in a day and wasn’t worried about being overweight. But then his school sent home an obesity report card.

“They let me know that I was at risk of having things like diabetes and a heart attack if I kept going the way I was,” Jeffery said. “I knew I was overweight, but I didn’t know how bad it could be.”

The 16-year-old Jeffrey changed his diet, started exercising and dropped 35 pounds.

Four years ago, Arkansas became the first state in the nation to track the number of overweight students in its schools. School officials say it has helped improve the state’s childhood-obesity rate, and a new report due today is expected to show that more Arkansas schoolchildren are winning their own battle of the bulge.

Health researchers, however, fear recent changes to the law could tip the scales the other way. Students will be weighed only every two years, and it’s now easier for parents to take them out of the program.

“The risk is that many parents who needed that screening information will now opt out,” said Wendy Ward-Begnoche, a pediatric psychologist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. “Parents often underestimate the weight status of their child.”

Arkansas’ initial law, pushed by former Gov. Mike Huckabee, called on schools to measure students each year and report to their parents whether pupils were overweight or were at risk of becoming overweight. Mr. Huckabee, now a 2008 Republican presidential candidate, championed the program as he lost more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with diabetes.

Some parents and legislators complained that putting into words what was obvious from afar — that some students are overweight — was hurting some children’s self-esteem. Legislators this year considered scrapping the program entirely but then voted to reduce the number of weigh-ins and make it easier for students to leave the testing program.

State health officials defend the changes, saying that cutting the number of children who are tracked doesn’t mean the state is turning its back on efforts to combat childhood obesity.

Jim Raczynski, dean of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ College of Public Health, said the reliability of the reports will now depend on the number of students who don’t want their body mass index tracked.

“If the children that opt out — or the parents who opt out — are the more overweight children, the data will be skewed,” Mr. Raczynski said. “It will look like there are fewer overweight children when in fact there aren’t.”

Last year, a study showed that the percentage of Arkansas children who were overweight or at risk of becoming overweight was 37.5 percent, down from 38.1 percent in 2004. University figures from a later study showed that 68 percent of parents and 85 percent of students said they were comfortable with the reports.

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