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Kindergartners and third-graders are getting heavier

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico schoolchildren in kindergarten and third grade are overweight, and continue to gain weight, according to a just released New Mexico Department of Health report on obesity.

The DOH annually collects childhood obesity prevalence data from children in kindergarten and third grade, “a time-sensitive window for preventing excessive weight gain at an early age, particularly among children who are already overweight in kindergarten,” the report says.

Looking at the Body Mass Index, or BMI, of 7,346 students in 59 randomly selected public schools throughout the state, health officials found that between 2018 and 2019, kindergarten obesity increased from 13.3% to 15.4%, and third-grade obesity was up from 20.8% to 22.9%.

A number of factors contribute to the prevalence of overweight and obese kids, including a family’s socioeconomic status, food insecurity and resources available within the community.

In 2017, according to the report, about 25% of New Mexico’s school-aged children lived in poverty, compared with the national rate of 17.3%. This is significant because research has shown that “children living in low-income families and neighborhoods are more likely to be obese,” the report says. The state’s overall high poverty rate in 2018 was about 19.5%, the report says.

Other findings in the report are:

• In both kindergarten and third grade, boys are more likely to be obese than girls.

• Obesity among Hispanic third graders rose from 22.6% in 2010 to 24.5% in 2019, which is concerning because the majority of school-age children in New Mexico are Hispanic.

• Native American students continue to have the highest obesity rate. In 2019, the obesity prevalence among Native American third graders was 29.3%, compared with 24.5% for third-grade Hispanic students and 15.8% for third-grade white students.

Rita Condon, manager of the DOH’s Obesity, Nutrition and Physical Activity Program, said preventing obesity and the illnesses that accompany it begins with healthy eating and physical activity.

“But people can’t choose those behaviors unless they have access to healthy food options and feel safe to be active in their communities,” she said.

Pushing toward that goal, the DOH and its community partners are expanding nutrition education and healthy food options in schools; incorporating more locally grown produce in school meals; creating farmers markets and gardens for schools and communities; and promoting exercise, such as trail walking and bicycling, as well as establishing safe walking and biking routes to connect neighborhoods, schools and community centers.

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