There’s good news and bad news about adult obesity rates.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way: New findings show that adult obesity remains far too high. Adult obesity rates remain above 20 percent in all states, above 30 percent in 13 states and at least 25 percent in 41 states.
But here’s the good news: After three decades of increases, adult obesity rates in the past year remained level in every state but one, Arkansas.
Our friends at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) unveiled these findings last week in the annual F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future report.
While there’s clearly still a lot of work left to do to solve the nation’s obesity epidemic, the report takes an optimistic tone. On its official website, it’s even nicknamed “F as in Forward?” highlighting the progress that has been made in recent years.
And the report’s promising findings come on the heels of another recent report by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention that found rates of obesity among preschool children from low-income families decreased in 18 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Cities such as Anchorage, Philadelphia and New York City also have reported declines in their childhood obesity rates.
“We honestly believe real and lasting progress is being made in the nation's effort to turn back the obesity epidemic. We know what is working to make that progress,” RWJF President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey and TFAH Executive Director Jeffrey Levi write in a letter about the report. “Our success among children has taught our nation how to prevent obesity: changing public policies, community environments, and industry practices in ways that support and promote healthy eating and physical activity. When schools, parents, policymakers and industry leaders get together, they can create a culture of health that improves children's lives. But no one should believe that the nation's work is done.”
Reaction from the childhood obesity movement also was positive. Speaking on behalf of Voices for Healthy Kids, American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown said the report “shows a nod in the right direction.”
“We are nowhere near success, but it looks like we are finally stalling the rise in obesity rates,” Brown said. “This is being accomplished by hundreds of cities and dozens of states making a commitment to the health of their communities.”
Although obese rates are stable, they remain stubbornly high — and discrepancies continue across wide swaths of the population.
Obesity rates vary by region and age, the report finds. Nineteen of the 20 states with the highest obesity rates are in the South or Midwest. Mississippi is no longer the most obese state; that title now belongs to Louisiana, which has a rate of 34.7 percent. Colorado continues to have the lowest rate of 20.5 percent.
Baby boomers are the heaviest, the findings show. Obesity rates for Americans ages 45-to-64 have reached 40 percent in two states (Alabama and Louisiana) and are 30 percent or higher in 41 states. Obesity rates for people ages 65 and older exceeded 30 percent in only one state, Louisiana, and rates young adults ages 18 to 25 are below 28 percent in every state.
Rates also strongly vary by income and education. More than 35 percent of adults ages 26 and older who did not graduate high school are obese, while 21.3 percent of those who graduated from college are obese. More than 25 percent of adults who earn at least $50,000 a year are obese; that rate jumps to more than 31 percent among those who earn less than $25,000 a year.
The data also show that “extreme obesity” — defined as a body mass index of 40 or higher — continues to grow. In the past 30 years, the number of adults who are extremely obese soared from 1.4 percent to 6.3 percent.
The report includes suggestions that have been shown to positively impact obesity rates, including improving the nutritional quality of school food, making it easier for children and adults to be physically active in their daily lives, including funding for walking and biking in transportation planning, increasing access to healthy, affordable food in underserved communities and requiring food and beverage companies to market only healthy food to kids.
It is also important to note that Columbia University released a study on the same day that stated we might actually be underestimating the mortality rate caused by obesity. And if morbid obesity rates are continuing to increase (per CDC surveillance), then we may see a greater impact of our current obesity rates on mortality than we previously anticipated. Armed with this information, it is as vital as ever to keep up with the fight against obesity and provide healthy environments to our children.
“The good news is that we know what to do,” Lavizzo-Mourey and Levi write. “The only question is, do we have the will to do it?”