America’s Obesity Problem Is Getting Even Worse

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Photo: Jeff J Mitchell (Getty Images)

The obesity epidemic in America is only getting worse in some states, according to a new report out this week. No single state had its overall obesity rate decline in 2017, it found, while six states saw a increase. But there have seemingly been minor victories in lowering childhood obesity in some groups.

The State of Obesity 2018 Report, as it’s called, is a joint collaboration by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, both nonprofit organizations focused on public health policy. The report, released annually for the past 15 years, collects and analyzes federal data on obesity trends and their impact on the country’s health and economy.

The report found that, from 2015 to 2016, 39.6 percent of adults nationally met the criteria for obesity (meaning they had a body mass index of 30 or greater), the highest reported percentage yet. And according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the obesity rate stayed level or increased in every state in 2017.

Six states in particular—Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and South Carolina—had their adult obesity rate increase from 2016 to 2017. Seven states—Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and West Virginia—had an adult obesity rate over 35 percent, while 22 states had a rate hovering between 30 and 35 percent. West Virginia had the highest obesity rate among adults, at 38.1 percent. Only two states, Hawaii and Colorado, had an adult obesity rate lower than 25 percent of adults.

In 2012, by comparison, not a single state had an adult obesity rate over 35 percent.

It should be clarified that the difference between the national and state rates cited in the report comes down to how data is collected. The CDC survey data, for example, is self-reported, while the national data comes from physical examinations taken of Americans across the country. So it’s likely the above numbers are actually an underestimation of how many people are obese in any given state.

Meanwhile, other research has found that, worldwide, a third of all people are either overweight or obese.

“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 CEO of Trust for America’s Health, in a statement.

Aside from the known health risks associated with obesity, which include type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, the report estimates that obesity costs an extra $149 billion annually in direct healthcare spending, and another $66 billion in lost productivity.

Not all the news is bad though. The report cited research showing that rates of obesity have declined in recent years among two- to four-year-olds enrolled in the government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program. From 2010 to 2014, the rate dropped from 15.9 percent to 14.5 percent nationally. Some, but not all, research has similarly found declines in childhood obesity in this age group.

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

Among the 40 policy recommendations highlighted by the report include strengthening dietary standards in schools (and not going ahead with a rollback of these standards proposed by the USDA last year), better funding and expanding community health programs aimed at addressing obesity and promoting exercise, and stopping food and beverage companies from continuing to market unhealthy foods to children.

[TFAH]

This article has been updated to clarify the differences in data cited by the TFAH report.