Missouri is moving up the ranks, and that’s a bad thing, because it’s the rankings of childhood obesity rates in the US.

Pat Simmons, a Nutrition Specialist with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, says the latest numbers show 29% of high school students are overweight or obese. That’s higher than the 28% average nationwide.

She says, of course, there are a number of factors that are contributing to this problem.

“The main thing, I think, is environment. The change in obesity rates happened so fast that you can’t really attribute that to genetics, but what’s going on around us. So things like we’re moving less, eating more, and eating more of the unhealthy foods,” Simmons said.

But she says a lack of vigilance among parents can also be a problem.

“You know, a lot of times actually, parents don’t recognize their child is obese because it is so common that we think it’s not a big thing, because, ‘Well so is Mary and so is John and so forth,’” Simmons said.

Simmons says kids are getting way too much “screen time” in front of the TV or computer, and not enough exercise. She says there are also efforts underway to get more healthy options in school cafeterias. She says forming good habits at a young age is vital for life-long health.

“Unfortunately children that are obese tend to continue to be obese as they grow into adults. I’m not saying that it can’t be reversed, but it’s definitely much easier to prevent obesity than it is to treat it,” Simmons said.

A lot of these are problems being faced nationwide. So what is contributing to Missouri falling behind other states?

“Part of our situation is we are so extreme in our rural communities and our urban communities, and so a lot of times there’s problems with access to healthy foods. We tend to think that sometimes that’s just in the urban locations, but often times it’s in the rural communities as well. Or there are no walking trails for people to walk on or use, like city parks and things like that. So I think that’s a piece of it, is just our geography,” Simmons said.

September is national childhood obesity awareness month. Simmons says it’s not a problem that can be ignored by parents.

“It is something that you have to be aware of and you have to really think about treating it, because part of the prevention is healthy habits. We know that kids learn those healthy habits from very early on. So the sooner we can start and help kids develop (those) by eating lots of fruit and vegetables, being physically active, the better it’s going to be for them,” Simmons said.

The Department of Health and Senior Services says each year, obesity costs Missouri nearly $2 billion in direct medical costs. It also says obese young people have an 80% chance of becoming obese adults.

AUDIO: Ryan Famuliner reports [1 min MP3]