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Some good news in Alaska's fight against obesity

Ben Anderson

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services on Monday released data showing a small but significant decrease in the rates of obese and overweight students in Anchorage. It’s a good sign in a time when obesity rates are steadily rising, and where the U.S. Congress can dubiously declare that pizza and french fries are vegetables.

According to new data compiled as part of an ongoing study about obesity rates in Anchorage youth, the number of Anchorage School District students who are overweight or obese currently rests at 36 percent, down from a peak of 38 percent in 2002-2003.

That may not sound like much, but according to Dr. Ward Hurlburt, the state’s Chief Medical Officer who was set to present the recent findings to the Anchorage School District on Monday night, that number is a bit deceptive.

“The bigger the number of your universe of people that you’re measuring -- and we have several hundreds of thousands over the course of the studies -- even a small change can be statistically significant,” Hurlburt said.

In a state where 67 percent of the adult population is overweight or obese and obesity-related medical expenses tally up to about $460 million every year, the results come as a huge plus in a largely bleak landscape. The new numbers are part of a study that’s been ongoing in the Anchorage School District since 1998, and evaluates students’ height and weight to determine their Body Mass Index (BMI).

BMI is a common measure of healthy weight, that divides a persons weight by their height and assigns it a number. Anything above 25 is considered “overweight,” and anything above 30 is categorized as “obese.” (Curious about your own BMI? You can calculate it here.)

Hurlburt credited the ASD in supporting the effort to drive down obesity rates, saying that they had improved school lunch menus and banned the sale of sugary sodas and junk food in schools.

“Most kids now eat breakfast and lunch at schools,” Hurlburt said, “and that makes a big difference.”

But what about at home, where kids might be fed fast food or other unhealthy options by a parent or parents too busy to prepare a well-balanced meal? Well, Hurlburt said, that’s a whole other matter. He notes that obesity-related costs are now higher in Alaska than those caused by tobacco. And a similar awareness campaign to the one that reduced the rates of tobacco use in the state might be beneficial in reducing obesity, he said.

“When I was a kid,” Hurlburt said, “there was nobody in my house who smoked, but if someone came over who did, you were expected to have an ashtray.”

But a big television advertising campaign has helped drive Alaskans use of tobacco down, until it's “one of the better (rates) in the country,” Hurlburt said.

The Department of Health and Social Services is currently conducting similar studies in Matanuska-Susitna area schools, and is getting ready to start one in Homer. They are hopeful that they’ll be able to expand to other, possibly more remote areas as well.

Currently, much of the data provided from elsewhere in the state comes from self-reporting rather that objective analysis of students heights and weights. One recent survey, the Alaska Youth Risk Behavior Survey, asked students about a number of activities that could put their health in danger.

In Alaska, only 26 percent of high school students self-reported themselves as being overweight or obese -- lower than most hard data indicates. And that’s despite DHSS numbers indicating that the prevalence of obesity increases as children age, so high schoolers are at increased risk of becoming overweight.

 Hurlburt said that that’s a shortcoming of self-reporting. “Most who are obese think they’re, quote, ‘just a little heavy,’” he said.

So on Monday, Anchorage’s school board will hear of possible success in creating a healthier generation of Alaskans -- and hopefully continue the efforts going forward.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com