During the past year, not one state experienced a decrease in adult obesity rates and, in fact, six states are home to even higher rates than before, according to a new report released today.
This morning, Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) released “The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America,” finding that adult obesity rates rose in Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wyoming. Mississippi and West Virginia tied to take the unenviable top spot, both with an adult obesity rate of 35.1 percent, while Colorado is home to the lowest rate of 21.3 percent. For the first time, obesity rates exceeded 35 percent in two states, while 20 states were home to rates at or above 30 percent. In addition, more than one in 10 children become obese as early as ages 2 to 5 years old.
The new report is an updated version of TFAH’s annual “F As in Fat” report, however the authors write that the “’F’ no longer stands for failure.” There is some progress, such as a stabilization of childhood obesity rates in some communities (for example, see this study on declines in New York City and Los Angeles); still, the report notes that any progress at this point is too early to describe as a stable trend, and adult obesity rates are still far too high and continue to put people’s health at severe risk.
Not all communities are experiencing obesity the same — as with many chronic diseases, significant disparities exist. According to the report, obesity rates are higher among black and Hispanic adults than among white adults. Specifically, obesity among black adults is at or higher than 40 percent in 11 states, 35 percent in 29 states and 30 percent in 41 states. For Hispanic adults, the obesity rate exceeded 35 percent in five states and 30 percent in 23 states. Obesity rates among white adults topped 30 percent in 10 states. Black and Hispanic children also had higher obesity rates than white children. People ages 45 to 64 years old experienced the highest obesity rate of any age group, low-income adults were more likely to be obese than higher-income adults, and those without a high school diploma were more likely to be obese than those with a college or technical school education.
The new report also examines policies and actions to address obesity, such as increasing access to affordable and healthy foods, creating safe places to be outside and physically active, and limiting junk food marketing toward children. Like many health problems facing America, the report notes that curbing obesity will take much more than a one-on-one approach. Instead, making real inroads into the nation’s obesity epidemic will truly require a community-based approach and a focus on reaching those communities most at risk. In the report’s introduction, TFAH Executive Director Jeffrey Levi and RWJF President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey write:
Through the years, we’ve also learned that reversing the obesity epidemic is not enough; we need to support strategies to assure that everyone in America can be as healthy as they can through regular physical activity and good nutrition. This will only happen if and when all of our children and families are able to make healthy choices where they live, learn, work and play.
We know we still have much more work to do. We must spread approaches that work to every community. This report is an urgent call to action for our nation and an essential step for building a strong, vibrant Culture of Health that provides everyone in America with the opportunity to maintain a healthy weight and live a healthy life.
For instance, while national recommendations call for children and teens to get at least an hour of physical activity each day, recent data finds that only about a quarter of children ages 6 to 15 years old meet that goal. The report recommends a number of actions to address the problem, including providing regular opportunities to be physically active in school, finding ways to provide access to school recreational facilities after school hours, and encouraging after-school programs to adopt exercise and nutrition standards.
Another issue the report examines is food deserts, noting that 29 million American face significant geographical barriers to accessing healthy foods, with low-income communities particularly hard hit. For example, one study examined food accessibility in Native American reservations in Washington state, finding that 15 reservations did not have a local supermarket or grocery store, and the cost of shopping outside the reservation was about 7 percent higher than national averages. In Mississippi, 70 percent of families that are eligible for nutrition assistance live 30 miles from the closest large grocery store. However, the report notes that healthy food financing programs are active and successful in a number of states. For example:
The most successful program to date is the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which since 2004 has financed supermarkets and other fresh food outlets in 78 urban and rural areas serving 500,000 city residents. In the process, (Fresh Food Financing Initiative) has created or retained 4,860 jobs in underserved neighborhoods. Home values near new grocery stores have increased from 4 percent to 7 percent, and local tax revenues also have increased.
Nationwide, the states with the lowest obesity rates include Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Utah and California, while states with the highest rates include Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky. Nine out of 10 states with the highest obesity rates are in the South.
“Obesity in America is at a critical juncture,” said Levi in a news release. “Obesity rates are unacceptably high and the disparities in rates are profoundly troubling. We need to intensify prevention efforts starting in early childhood, and do a better job of implementing effective policies and programs in all communities.”
To download a full copy of the new 136-page obesity report, which offers an in-depth exploration of policy solutions and opportunities, click here.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.