Childhood obesity is an issue talked about more and more these days.

But the statistics can still be surprising, especially the numbers that hit home.

Louisiana has the fourth highest rate of overweight and obese children in the country, researcher Melinda Sothern said.

More than 48 percent of children in the state are overweight, a figure that includes obese children.

More than 30 percent of children in the state are obese, she said.

Obesity compromises a child physically, metabolically and emotionally, Sothern said at a recent presentation.

“Obese children are emotionally different from healthy weight children and similar to children with cancer,” she said.

The encouraging news about the obesity issue, however, is that many of the risk factors for a child becoming obese can be modified or eliminated, Sothern said.

Sothern is a professor and the recipient of an endowed chair in health promotion in the Division of Behavioral and Community Health at LSU Health Sciences Center, School of Public Health in New Orleans.

She’s also an adjunct faculty member with the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

One of the authors of the book, “Trim Kids,” Sothern’s work as a national spokeswoman for healthy youth has been presented on such shows as “Good Morning America” and “Today” and in such publications as The Wall Street Journal.

Citing her research on childhood obesity and the research of others, Sothern recently spoke as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series of the Academic Distinction Fund.

In the question-and-answer period at the end of the Sept. 7 program, Sothern was asked, “What is the most important thing a mother can do to help a child who is already overweight?”

Sothern recommended making an appointment with the pediatrician, who may refer the parent to a dietitian.

Incorporating exercise in the child’s life would be helpful.

And an appointment with a mental health professional might be useful as well, she said, to help the child deal with the negative feelings that come from being overweight.

Sothern discouraged parents from approaching the child on the idea of going on a diet.

“There’s no pediatric weight management program (suitable) for all children,” she said.

Following are some of the things that can contribute to a child becoming overweight or obese — and some of the antidotes.

Maternal obesity:

Even prenatal factors can contribute to a child’s future risk of becoming obese, Sothern said.

In fact, she said that research shows that “the increase of unhealthy fat consumption in the diet of American mothers is causing altered genetic expression in the unborn child” related to obesity.

Pregnant women should instead try to follow a nutritious diet, she said.

“Obesity starts in the womb,” Sothern said.

Baby formula or breast milk?

“Relative to formula feeding, breast-feeding reduces the odds ratio for later obesity,” Sothern said.

New mothers should consider breast-feeding, if possible, she said.

“Breast-feeding is much more protective than we thought,” Sothern said.

Poor nutrition:

Americans are eating out more and more these days and one-third of those eating out eat fast food, research shows.

“Studies show that students with fast-food restaurants within a half-mile of their school are more likely to be overweight than students whose schools are not near fast-food restaurants,” Sothern said.

Other findings: Skipping breakfast is linked to obesity in children.

Proactive efforts would include making sure a child has a nutritious breakfast and having regular family meals — which contribute to healthy eating habits five years later,” Sothern said.

Gradually replace non-nutritious foods in the home. Make a game of “grading” vegetables (the ones with As can be regulars; the ones with Cs can be tried again, and Fs would be off the table.)

Consider a family garden, which has been linked to greater diversity in children’s diets.

Low physical activity and unhelpful family routines:

Four-year-olds are 40 percent less likely to be obese if they are:

• Limited to less than two hours of TV daily.

• Dining as a family at least six nights a week.

• Sleeping at least 10.5 hours on weekdays.

Besides cutting back on TV, parents should provide opportunities for their children to “safely climb, run and jump to encourage the development of muscular strength and endurance,” Sothern said.

Outdoor play, though, does raise another, separate issue, one involving policymakers, she said.

In one survey of 830 mothers of children ages 8 to 12, it was found that 82 percent said that concerns over crime and safety prevented outdoor play.