America’s obesity epidemic is showing no signs of shrinking. In fact, it’s expanding.
In 2017, seven states had adult obesity rates at or above 35 percent — two more states than in 2016 and a record high, according to the 15thannual “State of Obesity” report, which was published Wednesday by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The report, which is based on newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), notes that no states showed any statistically significant improvement in their adult obesity rates from 2016 to 2017.
Six states had an increase in their rates.
“If current trends continue, approximately half of today’s children will have obesity by the time they are 35, risking their health and driving up healthcare spending,” wrote John Auerbach, president and CEO of Trust for America’s Health, in a commentary that was released with the report.
Obesity already costs the U.S. economy an estimated $149 billion each year in direct health care spending, plus an additional $66 billion each year in lowered economic productivity, such as lost work days, he points out.
West Virginia had the highest adult obesity rate (38.1 percent) in 2017. The other six states with rates at or above 35 percent were Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and, for the first time, Iowa and Oklahoma.
As the report emphasizes, five years ago, all seven of those states had obesity rates under 35 percent.
Colorado had the lowest adult obesity rate (22.6 percent) in 2017. Only Hawaii and the District of Columbia also had rates below 25 percent.
The report also notes troubling racial and ethnic disparities among obesity rates. The adult obesity rate was much higher in 2017 for blacks (40 percent) than for Hispanics (32.4 percent) or for whites (29.3 percent). Blacks now have rates at or above 35 percent in 31 states. The rate is that high for Hispanics in eight states and for whites in one state.
Obesity rates are also higher among people living in low-income and rural communities — “places where residents often have limited access to healthy options,” Trust for America’s Health points out.
How Minnesota compares
Minnesota’s adult obesity rate was 28.4 percent in 2017, ranking the state 35th (in a tie with Florida and New Mexico) among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Minnesota is the last of the 12 states in the Midwest to have an obesity rate below 30 percent.
“The latest information from the CDC emphasizes that we have more work to do in our state,” wrote Jan Malcolm, Minnesota’s commissioner of health, in a released statement. “At the same time, it shows that Minnesota is outperforming our neighbors.”
The state’s rate is going in the wrong direction, however. In 2016, Minnesota’s rate was 27.8; in 2015 it was 26.1.
‘You are where you live’
The tendency of many people is to blame individuals — specifically, their personal food and physical activity choices — for the obesity epidemic. But as Auerbach explains in his commentary, the adage “you are what you eat” tells only part of the story.
“To fully understand what’s driving America’s obesity epidemic, and, what to do about it, we have to coin a new phase: You are where you live,” he writes. “We know that in order to achieve a healthy weight people need to consume healthy foods and be physically active. What we haven’t been able to do is provide all Americans equal access to healthful options and opportunities to exercise. Your ZIP code is likely to be an accurate predictor of your weight.”
People who are obese are likely to live in neighborhoods that are “food deserts,” he says, “where only unhealthful foods are readily available and affordable. They also are likely to lack accessible and safe places for physical activity.”
Needed: system-wide solutions
The “State of Obesity” report offers 40 recommendations for policymakers, the health care system and the restaurant and food industry.
They include supporting and strengthening federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), as well as maintaining nutrition standards for school meals that were put into effect during the Obama administration.
In the current political environment, meeting those goals is an uphill battle. The Trump White House has rolled back the Obama-era school-meal standards, and with the support of Republicans in Congress, it has also been chipping away at SNAP and WIC.
In Minnesota, reducing obesity is a key goal of the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP), which provides grants to help counties and tribal nations create healthier communities.
That funding is being used by local communities to “expand access to healthy food and physical activity in neighborhoods, schools, worksites and health care settings,” according to the MDH. “It also supports state initiatives to improve and expand bike and pedestrian infrastructure and national efforts to promote walking and walkable communities.”
As Auerbach emphasizes, “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.”
“The good news is that there is growing evidence that certain prevention programs can reverse these trends,” he adds. “But we wont’ see meaningful declines in state and national obesity rates until they are implemented throughout the nation and receive sustained support.”
FMI: You can read the “State of Obesity” report in full on the TFAH’s website.