“After decades of increasing, the national obesity rate among 2- to 19-year-olds has begun to level off and the rise of obesity among adults has slowed over time. Yet, obesity remains a bigger threat to our health and country now than it was a generation ago,” according to the 14th annual State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier American report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which was released in late August.
“Across the nation around one in three adults and one in six children are obese, and for comparison purposes consider back in 2000 there was no state that had an obesity rate above 25% and now 46 states do,” John Auerback, president and CEO of Trust for America’s Health said during a press briefing.
While he said he was discouraged that the obesity epidemic continues to plague the US, he also noted that “last year was the first time in 14 years of conducting [The State of Obesity report] that we started to see decreases in [the obesity rate] in any state and the rate of increase has definitely started to slow.”
For support, he noted that the in the last year Kansas saw a decrease in its obesity rate and only four states – Colorado, Minnesota, Washington and West Virginia – had increases in their rates of adult obesity. And while Colorado increased, its obesity rate was still the lowest of the country at 22.3% of the adult population.
Still, he reported, there are “troubling racial and ethnic inequities in the obesity rate” as well as geographic correlations between higher obesity rates.
Specifically, he said, the rates for obesity among black adults exceeded 40% in 15 states and was at or above 35% for Latinos in nine states, while only one state had an obesity rate at or above 35% for whites. For children the picture was just as grim with 21.9% of Latinos children and 19% of black children being obese and only 14% of white children.
Geographically, the south had the highest obesity rates with nine southern states in the top 11 states and 23 of the top 25 states with the highest rates in the south or Midwest, Auerback said.
Building on success
Despite these negative findings, the report also showed that national childhood obesity rates have stabilized in recent years and many places are reporting their rates are starting to decline, particularly younger children, said Donald Schwarz, vice president of programs at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“There are a variety of successes that brought us to this point. We have made significant improvements to the foods, snacks and drinks provided in schools and after school programs. Since 2010, more than $1 billion in private investment has joined public dollars to support the opening of countless supermarkets across the nation through the health food financing initiative,” he said.
Similarly, screening tools and counseling have helped young children live at healthy weights, home visit programs have helped parents get their babies off to healthy starts and healthier standards for the Special Supplement Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children have improved beneficiaries’ weight, he said.
Schwarz also gave credit to 16 food and beverage companies for collectively cutting 1 trillion calories from the marketplace and ensuring there are healthier options in schools, community centers and the health care system.
But, he warned, “the next few years will be crucial to ensure progress continues and the accomplishments we had are not eroded. The stakes are incredibly high. Our children’s futures and our nation’s future depend on it.”
He said he is particularly fearful that “cutting funding for obesity prevention programs and weakening school nutrition standards and delaying updates to important nutrition education tools could each separately and certainly collectively harm the nation’s health and raise obesity rates.”
Warning that “we can’t afford to move backwards,” Schwarz said the country must “keep pushing forward.”
Five recommendations for better health
To do this, the report recommends five steps.
“First of all, we should fully fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Auerback said, explaining that the entire annual budget for all chronic disease prevention activities for CDC breaks down to just $4 per person.
“As a reminder, obesity related health care costs are $150 billion a year and 80% of the $3 trillion that is spent on health care costs annually are spent on individuals with one or more chronic conditions,” he added.
The second priority should be early childhood policies and programs, such as providing healthier meals, more physical activity, less screen time and connecting families to community services through early education programs, Auerback said.
In addition, he said, “families often need support as the pursue some of the healthier options for their children, such as safe outdoor places and local stores that sell healthy, affordable foods.”
With that in mind, the report recommends maintaining progress on school based policies and programs, such as strong school nutrition standards, wider and easier access to school meals and expanded options for physical activity
The fourth recommendation is to invest more in community based policies and programs to improve nutrition, something the CDC plays a strong role in by creating evidence-based standards and models for success, Auerback said.
Finally, the report recommends, obesity prevention health care coverage and care should be expanded to Medicare and Medicaid. This might take the form of screening patients to identify those who have unhealthy weights and increasing their access to healthy and nutritious food, he said.
He concluded by noting that “obesity has been raised as a top priority among public and policy makers on both sides of the aisle,” and as such the current political climate should not be an excuse to hold back on helpful reform.