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Report Finds Obesity Rates Leveling Off, but Still Far Too High

Mary Caffrey
There are positive signs among the youngest children in states where adult obesity rates are highest, but the challenge is to continue that progress as these children get older.
A national report that tracks the war on obesity finds there’s been some progress, but while rates are leveling off among adults and children they remain too high.

Data in the “State of Obesity” report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation show adult obesity rates have declined in Kansas and gone up in Minnesota, Washington, and West Virginia. Even Colorado saw an increase in obesity rates, although it still has the nation’s lowest obesity rate at 22.3%.

Elsewhere, adult obesity rates remained stable between 2015 and 2016, but that still leaves rates above 35% in 5 states and above 30% in 25 states. West Virginia leads the country in obesity, with 37.7% of adults having a body mass index at or above 30 kg/m2.

Most states take obesity seriously. Two-thirds of states and the District of Columbia have specific policies to prevent obesity, all have policies to promote healthy eating and physical activity among young children, and 30 now have policies to reduce screen time among kids, which is recognized as a factor that keeps children from getting enough exercise.

States promote health through early childhood education (ECE) standards, which ensure that licensed preschool programs and day care centers have meals and snacks that meet US Department of Agriculture standards. Most states have ECE standards since so many young children spent long hours in these settings; increasingly, standards have reached states with the most severe obesity rates.

The focus on the youngest children, especially those younger than age 5 and enrolled in the Women, Infants’ and Children's (WIC) nutrition program, is bearing some fruit. In states with the top 5 adult obesity rates—West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana—the obesity trend lines for 2- to 4-year-old children in WIC are flat or falling. However, obesity rates for the youngest children remain several points higher than those in other states. Now, the challenge is to keep these children eating healthy and exercising as they get older, and keep trends moving in the right direction.

Despite the overall leveling off, alarming signs remain. In several states with adult rates above 35%, progress with the youngest children is reversed in the teen years, and some states like Mississippi saw spikes in obesity rates among older children after several years of progress.

The report also points to funding cuts to policy shifts at the federal level that threaten to undo progress: weakened school nutrition regulations, a delay in putting the Nutrition Facts label into effect, and changes to the National School Lunch Program. A 2012 analysis found that 39 states would have adult obesity rates of 50% or higher by 2030 if current trends were not reversed. A report from the American Diabetes Association from 2012 data found that diabetes, which is highly connected to obesity, already costs the country $245 billion a year, and obesity itself costs $150 billion a year.

Specific healthcare recommendations include:
  • Health plans should cover the full range of obesity treatments, including behavioral health care.
  • Health systems must find innovative ways to promote heathy eating and physically active lifestyles, including ways to pay for the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP).
  • States can help by including DPP coverage for state employees and for Medicaid.
 

 
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