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Feature Story

October 2015


2015 State of Obesity Report Suggests Policies for Improving Health

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United States adult obesity rates remained mostly steady—but high—this past year, increasing in Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Utah, and remaining stable in the rest, according to The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, a report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Arkansas had the highest adult obesity rate at 35.9 percent, while Colorado had the lowest at 21.3 percent. The 12th annual report found that rates of obesity now exceed 35 percent in three states (Arkansas, West Virginia and Mississippi), are at or above 30 percent in 22 states and are not below 21 percent in any. In 1980, no state had a rate above 15 percent, and in 1991, no state had a rate above 20 percent. Now, nationally, more than 30 percent of adults, nearly 17 percent of 2- to 19-year-olds and more than 8 percent of children ages 2 to 5 are obese.

Obesity puts some 78 million Americans at an increased risk for a range of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

"Efforts to prevent and reduce obesity over the past decade have made a difference. Stabilizing rates is an accomplishment. However, given the continued high rates, it isn't a time to celebrate," said Jeffrey Levi, Ph.D., executive director of The Trust for America's Health (TFAH). "We've learned that if we invest in effective programs, we can see signs of progress. But, we still haven't invested enough to really tip the scales yet."

Some of the key findings from the report include:

  • Prevention among children is key. It is easier and more effective to prevent overweight and obesity in children by helping every child maintain a healthy weight than it is to reverse trends later. The biggest dividends are gained by starting in early childhood, promoting good nutrition and physical activity so children enter kindergarten at a healthy weight.
  • Healthy communities can help people lead healthy lives. Small changes that make it easier and more affordable to buy healthy foods and beverages and be physically active can lead to big differences. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The New York Academy of Medicine and other experts have identified a range of policies and programs (e.g., improving school nutrition, physical activity and lifestyle interventions, health screenings, walking programs) that can help create healthier communities. Lower-income communities often face higher hurdles and need more targeted efforts.

The report also showed how obesity rates can differ according to region, age and race or ethnicity:

  • Seven of the 10 states with the highest rates are in the South, and 23 of the 25 states with the highest rates of obesity are in the South and Midwest.
  • Nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of diabetes are in the South. Diabetes rates increased in eight states: Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
  • American Indian/Alaska Natives have the highest adult obesity rate, 54 percent, of any racial or ethnic group.
  • Nationally, obesity rates are 38 percent higher among Blacks (47.8 percent) than Whites (32.6 percent), and more than 26 percent higher among Latinos (42.5 percent) than Whites.
  • Adult obesity rates are at or above 30 percent in: 42 states for Blacks, 30 states for Latinos, and 13 states for Whites.
  • Obesity rates are 26 percent higher among middle-age adults than among younger adults: Rates rise from 30 percent of 20- to 39-year-olds to nearly 40 percent of 40- to 59-year-olds.
  • More than 6 percent of adults are severely obese—a more than 125 percent increase in the past two decades. Around 5 percent are already severely obese by the age of 6 to 11.

"In order to build a national culture of health, we must help all children, no matter who they are or where they live, grow up at a healthy weight," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of RWJF. "We know that when we take comprehensive steps to help families be more active and eat healthier foods, we can see progress. Now we must extend those efforts and that progress to every community in the country."

The State of Obesity also reviews key programs that can help prevent and address obesity by improving nutrition in schools, childcare and food assistance; increasing physical activity before, during and after school; expanding healthcare coverage for preventing and treating obesity; making healthy affordable food and safe places to be active more accessible in neighborhoods; increasing healthy food options via public-private partnerships; and creating and sustaining policies that help all children maintain a healthy weight and adults be as healthy as possible, no matter their weight.

For more information, visit www.stateofobesity.org.


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