US Obesity Rates Leveling Off, No Time to Be Complacent

Megan Brooks

August 31, 2017

Adult obesity rates are showing signs of leveling off for the second year in a row, following years of rapid increases, according to a new report from Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

But the report warns that progress could be eroded if antiobesity programs are cut and policies are weakened.

"Obesity rates are still far too high, but the progress we've seen in recent years is real and it's encouraging," Richard E Besser, MD, president and chief executive officer of RWJF, said in a statement. "That progress could be easily undermined if leaders and policy makers at all levels don't continue to prioritize efforts that help all Americans lead healthier lives."

Nationally, nearly 38% of adults are obese and nearly 8% are extremely obese, according to the 14th annual "State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America" report.

Between 2015 and 2016, adult obesity rates decreased in one state (Kansas), increased in four (Colorado, Minnesota, Washington, and West Virginia), and remained steady in the rest.

"This supports trends that show steadying levels in recent years," the report notes.

Last year was the first time the annual report found any declines in adult obesity rates, with four states experiencing declines, and, over time, increases have started to slow. In 2006, obesity rates increased in 31 states; in 2010 rates increased in 16 states.

Other major findings in this year's report:

  • In all 50 states, more than one in five adults (20%) are obese.

  • Adult obesity rates exceed 35% in five states (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia) and top 30% in 25 states. West Virginia has the highest obesity rate (37.7%).

  • Hawaii, Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, and Colorado have the lowest obesity rates (below 25%). Colorado has the lowest adult obesity rate (22.3%).

  • The South has the highest prevalence of obesity (32.0%) followed by the Midwest (31.4%), the Northeast (26.9%), and the West (26.0%).

  • Adult obesity rates have "striking" racial and ethnic inequities, with rates above 40% for blacks in 15 states and rates at or above 35% among Latinos in nine states. In contrast, in only one state are adult obesity rates above 35% among whites.

  • Adults with more education were less likely to be obese. Obesity rates are 35.5% in adults without a high school education, 32.3% in high school graduates, 31% in those with some college, and 22.2% in college graduates.

  • One in four young adults who try to join the military are ineligible due to fitness and weight concerns.

The report also notes that, based on several federal government data sources, the national childhood obesity rate has leveled off, after increasing steadily for decades, but remains "alarmingly high" compared with a generation ago.

A Critical Juncture

To accelerate progress in addressing obesity, the report urges policy makers to invest in prevention at the federal, state, and local levels, including early childhood programs such as Head Start, school-based programs that emphasize healthy food choices, and community-based policies and programs, including those that support physical activity.

The report also supports fully implementing menu-labeling rules and the updated Nutrition Facts label, as well as continued and expanded Medicare and Medicaid coverage of obesity prevention, treatment, and management services.

"It's clear that the progress we've made in fighting obesity is fragile — and that we're at a critical juncture where continuation of the policies that show promise and increased support and resources could truly help bend the rising tide of obesity rates," John Auerbach, president and CEO of TFAH, said in a statement.

"We're far from out of the woods when it comes to obesity. But we have many reasons to be optimistic, thanks to parents, educators, business owners, health officials, and other local leaders. Our nation's policy makers must follow their example to build a culture of health."

The State of Obesity report with state rankings and interactive maps, charts, and graphs is available online. This year, the report contains a new feature that tracks the status of each state's efforts on more than two dozen policies aimed at preventing obesity and supporting health.

The obesity rate analyses are based on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS).

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