Record Number of US States Have High Obesity Rates

Megan Brooks

September 12, 2018

In 2017 a record seven US states had adult obesity rates at or above 35%, up from five states in 2016, and no state had a significant improvement in its obesity rate over the past year, according to a new report released today.

Six states reported an increase in the obesity rate between 2016 and 2017, and adult obesity rates now exceed 25% in 48 states, according to the State of Obesity 2018: Better Policies for a Healthier America. It's the 15th annual report by the Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 

This year's report presents a "stark illustration of the toll the obesity epidemic continues to take on our nation," Nancy Brown, chief executive officer of the American Heart Association (AHA), said in a statement. "The epidemic continues to put millions of Americans at higher risk for a range of chronic diseases and costs our healthcare system billions of dollars each year."

Obesity is estimated to consume $149 billion annually in directly related healthcare spending, and an additional $66 billion a year in lower economic productivity.

Adult Obesity Rates Are Increasing

According to this latest report, the number of states with high adult obesity rates is increasing with no less than one in five adults having obesity in every state.

Levels of obesity vary considerably from state to state, however, with a low of 22.6% in Colorado and a high of 38.1% in West Virginia.

Other major findings of this year's report include:

  • Seven states now have obesity rates at or above 35%, and for the first time, including Iowa and Oklahoma, and for at least the second time, including Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia. As recently as 2012 no state had an adult obesity rate over 35%.

  • Adult obesity rates significantly increased between 2016 and 2017 in six states — Iowa, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

  • In 22 states, adult obesity rates are between 30% and 35%, and 19 states have adult obesity rates between 25% and 30%.

  • Over the past 5 years (2012-2017), obesity rates significantly increased in 31 states, with no decrease in any state.

  • Obesity rates are highest in black and Latino communities, low-income and rural communities, and areas where residents often have limited access to healthy options. National adult obesity rates are 47.0% for Latinos and 46.8% for blacks compared with 37.9% for whites; 34.2% of adults living in rural areas are obese compared with 28.7% of adults living in metro areas.

As previously reported by Medscape Medical News, 18.5% of children and teenagers and 39.6% of adults age 20 years and older were obese in 2015-2016, according to National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data. There were no significant changes in youth or adult rates compared with 2013-2014 NHANES data, but rates have significantly increased since 1999-2000, when 13.9% of children and 30.5% of adults had obesity.

And the prevalence of obesity in the United States remains higher than the 2020 Healthy People goals of 14.5% among youth and 30.5% among adults.

A Call to Action

"Obesity is a complex and often intractable problem and America's obesity epidemic continues to have serious health and cost consequences for individuals, their families, and our nation," said John Auerbach, president and chief executive officer of TFAH.

"The good news is that there is growing evidence that certain prevention programs can reverse these trends. But we won't see meaningful declines in state and national obesity rates until they are implemented throughout the nation and receive sustained support," warned Auerbach in a press release.

"The best way to reduce adult obesity rates over the long term is to make every day healthy for our children," added Brown.

She noted that through the Voices for Healthy Kids initiative, a joint collaboration between the AHA and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the AHA has supported more than 100 successful advocacy campaigns over the past 5 years that have increased access to healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity for kids and families across the country.

"These campaigns show what can happen when we prioritize a healthy future for every child," she observed.

Brown said the AHA is continuing to focus their efforts on reducing kids' consumption of sugary drinks, which raises the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease: "We urge states and communities to enact taxes on sugary drinks and ensure that healthy beverages such as water and milk come standard with all restaurant kids' meals."

"Obesity is a major challenge in nearly every state and our role as public health leaders is to ensure we're doing everything we can to address it," added John Wiesman, DrPH, MPH, president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) and secretary of health at the Washington State Department of Health.

"Our goal at the state level is to work across sectors to advocate for and implement evidence-based policies that encourage active healthy living and support healthy and safe communities that provide access to healthy foods, physical activity, and clinical preventive services," he concluded.

The report was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

TFAH. State of Obesity Report

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