Obesity Rising in Some States

Despite recent improvements in childhood obesity, the overall rate increased in six states last year and decreased in zero.
by | September 4, 2014

Obesity rates among young children may be declining, but the overall American rate increased in six states this past year, up from an increase in only one state the year before, according to the latest annual report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health.

The report, called the State of Obesity, is sobering after some recent signs of progress. The situation has improved since 2005, when the obesity rate increased in nearly every state, but overall rates remain static or have edged upward slightly. In 2013, no state’s obesity rate declined by a statistically significant margin.

“While we’ve seen some progress on the childhood obesity front, the results remain mixed for adults,” said Jeff Levi, the executive director of Trust for America’s Health, in a conference call with reporters. “Quite simply, obesity in America is at a critical juncture,” he later added.

The report relies on data from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which samples residents of all 50 states on a monthly basis on a variety of health factors, including body weight.

Nationally, obesity in America started to surge about 30 years ago, when no state had a rate above 15 percent. But by 1994 adult obesity climbed to 23 percent nationally, according to the CDC. By 2005-06, the rate reached 34.3 percent, where it’s remained largely static overall since. For 2011-12, the most recent year available, adult obesity was 34.9 percent. Critics have long blamed persistent lobbying from food companies against federal regulation, and farm subsidies that encourage the growth of crops like corn, a key component of high-fructose corn syrup, a common food additive linked to obesity.

According to this year’s report, adult obesity rates increased by statistically significant margins in six states: Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wyoming. In Mississippi and West Virginia, now the two states with the highest obesity rates in the country, the overall rate topped 35 percent for the first time ever. Colorado had the lowest rate at 21.3 percent. States in the West generally have lower obesity rates than the rest of the country; nine out of the 10 highest-ranked states are in the South.

Perhaps of most concern to public health professionals are persistent disparities based on race, education and income. The rate among black people is at or above 40 percent in 11 states, and more than 33 percent of adults who earn less than $15,000 a year are obese.

But there have been greater signs of progress among children that transcends race and income. The CDC reported earlier this year that obesity among children aged two to five decreased from 14 percent to 8 percent over the past decade. Public health experts say behaviors and body weight can become entrenched at young ages, so that change has offered some hope. Also, between 2008 and 2011, 18 states saw a declining obesity rate among preschool kids from low-income families, according to the new report.

Cities like Philadelphia have seen steady declines in obesity among low-income kids following years of focus on policies such as bans on sugary foods in school vending machines, greater physical activity, nutrition education, putting fresh food in corner markets and financing supermarkets in “food deserts.” Between 2006 and 2010, the city cut its childhood obesity rate by about 5 percent overall and by more than 7 percent among black girls and boys.

The federal Farm Bill, reauthorized in 2014, includes provisions that encourage the kinds of policies Philadelphia has pursued, such as $125 million toward grants and tax incentives to encourage food retailers to open in underserved areas and expanded opportunities for food stamp recipients to use their benefits at farmers’ markets.

“What we’ve hoping to do is focus on what the specific interventions are in these bright spots and how we can scale those across the country to more places,” said Ginny Ehrlich, director and senior program officer of childhood obesity at Robert Wood Johnson.

For state rankings and profiles, see here