Columbus schools will screen students for more health problems after a district program found that an alarming number of youngsters are overweight.

Columbus schools will screen students for more health problems after a district program found that an alarming number of youngsters are overweight.

The district also has started clamping down on junk-food sales. Soda vending machines in middle and high schools were converted to water only last month. And school officials are discussing banning unhealthful foods from snack machines, an effort that could begin this winter, said Elaine Bell, executive director for student assistance, intervention and outreach. Talks are under way to limit cupcakes and other sweets at elementary school fundraisers and parties.

Nearly one in four preschoolers whose body-mass index were checked last spring was found to be overweight, as defined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The problem got worse with age. About 44 percent of the district's 4,067 fifth-graders weighed too much. The screening results "are very shocking," said Dr. Robert Murray of Nationwide Children's Hospital. "We used to think about these kinds of changes in 40-year-olds. We never expected to see it in 8- and 9-year-old children."

The BMI screenings will be expanded to all seventh- and ninth-graders this year, district administrators said. Students in three schools will receive non-invasive assessments for high insulin levels, a risk factor for diabetes. The district has not decided which schools. The number of Columbus students with diabetes has been skyrocketing, from eight in 2000 to nearly 180 this year, according to the district. Obesity is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, the more common form of the disease. Type 1 diabetes is thought to be linked to genetics or an autoimmune disorder.

Murray is helping the district begin screenings for acanthosis nigricans, a darkening and coarsening of skin around the neck that can stem from high insulin levels. The CDC strongly discourages schools from using acanthosis screenings. The agency cites a lack of scientific standards to identify acanthosis and warns that students with the skin problem could be stigmatized. "CDC scientists believe that it is not ethical or cost-effective to mass screen children for AN," the agency's position statement reads.

Murray acknowledges the lack of evidence but said the screenings could help alert parents and doctors to a possible problem. "The future risk of health problems is hidden unless someone goes and looks for it," Murray said. He said acanthosis also can show a risk for developing hypertension and high cholesterol. Letters will be sent to parents whose children's BMI or acanthosis screenings raise red flags, district administrators said.

This fall, United Way of Central Ohio, which is funding the preschool BMI screenings, will begin hosting community workshops on improving children's nutrition and physical activity, focusing on parents of children with high BMIs, said Michelle Vander Stouw, United Way's senior impact director for strengthening individuals and families.

Columbus Health Commissioner Dr. Teresa C. Long blamed the childhood obesity problem on an increasingly sedentary and busy lifestyle that has led to dependence on high-calorie, low-nutrient food. The rate of diabetes in Columbus far outpaces that of the nation, she said. She also said more steps are being taken to attack the local problem, including adding sidewalks and bike trails. Children are a good target for intervention because it is easier to improve their health and habits. "We need to try and change our community's culture," she said. "The life expectancy of our children is predicted to be less than their parents' directly because of this issue. That should be a call to arms."