New Obesity Report Paints a Portly Snapshot of the US

Pam Harrison

September 22, 2015

The prevalence of obesity among adults and children living in the United States continues to be alarming, but there are signs that weight is stabilizing among adults in many states, and even among children in areas where greater efforts are being made to keep kids healthy, according to the State of Obesity report released yesterday by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"Obesity rates among both children and adults are far higher than they were a generation ago, so this report shows us that obesity continues to remain one of the biggest threats to the health of our children and our country," Abbey Cofsky, MPH, senior program officer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said during a telebriefing for the press.

Still, in the past decade, there have been some encouraging signs of progress, she added.

"For example, we've gone from seeing obesity rates rise in most states year after year, to now in this report, where we are seeing increases in just a few states," she said.

In the September 2015 report, adult obesity rates had increased from previously published figures in Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, and Utah.

Nationally, 34.9% of American adults are currently obese, while 68.6% of adults are obese or overweight.

Rates of obesity now exceed 35% in Arkansas, West Virginia, and Mississippi and are at or above 30% in 22 states; worryingly, they are not below 21% in any state.

By way of comparison, in 1980, no state had an obesity rate above 15% and in 1991, no state had an obesity rate in excess of 20%.

More Severe Obesity, but Some Progress

Moreover, over 6% of adults are severely obese with a body mass index of 40 mg/kg2 or higher — an increase of 125% in the past two decades, the report authors note.

And"overall obesity rates among children remain troubling," added Jeff Levi, PhD, executive director of Trust for American's Health.

Among children between 2 and 5 years of age, one out of 12 is now severely obese, while in children between 6 to 11 years of age, 5% of children are severely obese.

But again, as the authors point out, in just the past year, more school districts, cities, counties, and states have reported a decline in their childhood obesity rates from previous statistics.

These reports are coming in from areas as diverse as Tennessee, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, Ms Cofsky noted.

"These areas may differ in many ways, but they all have one thing in common," she said. "They made the issue of obesity a priority and worked together to make it easier for children and families to be active and eat healthy food at school and in the community."

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report showing obesity rates had decreased among preschool children in 18 states and one US territory.

"These children were enrolled in federal health and nutrition programs like the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children," Ms Cofsky explained.

"And this is the first time in decades that rates have dropped among young children in low-income families."

Racial Disparities Still Persist

Not unexpectedly, there are racial disparities in obesity rates, as the new report makes clear.

Nationally, obesity rates are 38% higher among blacks than whites and more than 26% higher among Latinos than whites.

The report also notes that 23 of the 25 states with the highest rates of obesity are in the South and the Midwest.

Obesity rates are at or above 30% for blacks in 42 states, in 30 states for Latinos, and 13 states for whites.

Obesity rates are also higher in middle-aged Americans, at almost 40% among 40- to 59-year-olds compared with 30% for adults between the ages of 20 and 39 years.

Effective Strategy to Employ Five Goals

As both Ms Cofsky and Dr Levi emphasize, the most effective strategies to reduce obesity rates occur at a population level, and the biggest dividends are gained by promoting good nutrition and physical activity in early childhood.

"Children who enter school at a healthy weight are more likely to stay on track and remain at a healthy weight as they get older," Dr Levi emphasized. "And healthy communities can help people lead healthy lives."

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has now dedicated an additional $500 million over the next 10 years in an effort to help all children grow up at a healthy weight.

With what is now over $1 billion from the foundation earmarked for this goal, the organization is aiming to meet five key goals:

  • Ensure all children enter kindergarten at a healthy weight.

  • Make healthy school environments the norm and not the exception across the country.

  • Eliminate the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in children between 0 and 5 years of age.

  • Make physical activity a part of everyday experience for children and young adolescents.

  • Eliminate desserts once and for all.

"There is no magic bullet in all of this," Dr Levi stressed.

"The goal here is for people to be healthy at any weight — obviously, the lower the rates of obesity the better — but a lot of the interventions we are talking about that prevent obesity — like improving nutrition and increasing physical activity — can help people who are already obese be healthier at the weight they currently are as well."

The latest Centers for Disease Control maps detailing the prevalence of adult obesity are based on 2014 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) state- and territory-specific data.


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