Alabama teens also outstrip almost all of their peers in consumption of soda, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a nationwide study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that monitors health behaviors of teens.
“I was alarmed at the number of colas being consumed,” said Molly Killman, assistant director of the Nutrition and Physical Activity Division at the Alabama Department of Public Health.
The study, an annual survey of 15,500 students in 158 schools nationwide, concluded that 17 percent of Alabama students in grades 9 through 12 were obese in 2011. Another 15.8 percent were considered overweight – meaning that 32.8 percent of Alabama high school students were above what is considered a healthy weight. The study calculated overweight and obesity using the students’ self-reported height and weight.
Technically, Alabama’s obesity numbers were the highest in the nation, but state officials cautioned that the numbers have a wide margin of error. The report indicates the actual number could be as high as 21 percent and as low as 13.5 percent.
The numbers place Alabama in the top tier for high school obesity. Kentucky, Louisiana and Oklahoma reported more than 16 percent of their students as obese, while Mississippi, Georgia Tennessee and Texas were among those that hit or passed the 15 percent mark.
The least obese states were Colorado, at 7.3 percent and Montana, at 8.6 percent. Nationwide, 13 percent of students were obese.
The numbers for Alabama show a sharp increase from 2009, when only 13.5 percent of Alabama students were considered obese. During the same period, the percentage of students who were considered overweight declined, from 17.5 percent to 15.8 percent.
State officials said they weren’t sure what accounted for the sharp two-year change. They cautioned that the rise in numbers could be a fluke caused by the study’s relatively small sample of Alabama students
“It takes some time for us to determine if the changes are statistically significant,” said Miriam Gaines, director of the State Obesity Task Force.
Still, state officials say, it’s clear that there’s a long-term trend toward Alabamians getting heavier, and at an earlier age.
Around two-thirds of adults in Alabama are either overweight or obese, according to CDC numbers, and about one-in-10 adults here have been diagnosed with diabetes. That puts Alabama near the top in overall obesity rates.
While teen obesity rates are around half the adult rates, Gaines said those numbers have grown over the past few decades.
“We’re seeing problems, like hypertension, in kids that we used to see only in adults,” Gaines said.
State officials said it was impossible to narrow down a single cause for Alabama’s teen obesity rise, but the numbers on soda consumption clearly stood out.
Approximately 41 percent of Alabama students reported drinking at least one soda per day. That’s the highest rate in the nation, though other Deep South states were close behind. Thirty-one percent said they drank two per day, and 19 percent said they drank three sodas or more. Again, other Deep South states were within a percentage point of Alabama’s numbers. Utah posted the lowest numbers nationwide, with 14 percent of students drinking one soda per day.
Gaines said state rules prohibit sale of carbonated drinks containing sugar in vending machines in high schools – but other sugary drinks such as Powerade and Gatorade remain available.
Attempts to reach June Barrett, director of child nutrition for the Alabama Department of Education, were not immediately successful Friday. The same was true for Mary Stonebraker, director of child nutrition for Calhoun County Schools, and Debbie Prince, director of child nutrition for Anniston City Schools.
Soft drink consumption isn’t the only health challenge Alabama students face. Ten percent said they did not eat vegetables once per day.
Killman said she saw one bright spot in the numbers. Just under half of students said they were enrolled in physical education classes, and 35 percent said they attended PE every school day. That put Alabama students ahead of most other states. In Hawaii and Maine, fewer than 10 percent of students attended daily PE, while New Jersey led the nation with 55 percent of students in a daily PE class.
Around half of Alabama students reported being on a sports team, near the national average.
Forty-four percent of Alabama students said they were trying to lose weight, close to the national average. In every state, roughly four out of every 10 students reported they were trying to slim down.
Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star