Congratulations, America! You've stopped getting fatter!
Well, most Americans have. Obesity rates crept up in six states last year but held steady in the other 44 plus the District of Columbia, according to a new report. That showing was good enough to prompt the authors of the report to change its name from "F as in Fat" to "The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America."
"We believe the F no longer stands for 'failure,' " Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, wrote in a letter introducing the report.
Back in 2005, 49 out of 50 states saw year-over-year increases in their rates of obesity, defined as a body mass index above 30. In 2013, only Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wyoming were in that category, according to the report.
Perhaps the most heartening trend was that childhood obesity rates stabilized nationwide. Nearly 17% of children and young adults between the ages of 2 and 19 were obese as of mid-2012, and another 14% were overweight, the report says.
Obesity rates have actually declined for some of the youngest Americans. Among the 40 states that collect BMI data on low-income children between the ages of 2 and 5, 18 recorded declines in their obesity rates between 2008 and 2011, while only three states saw rates go up.
These figures are encouraging to public health experts because the easiest way to fight obesity is to prevent people from gaining too much weight in the first place.
“Early childhood is particularly important because research tells us that if you can avoid obesity early on, you’re much more likely to maintain a healthy weight into adolescence and adulthood,” Lavizzo-Mourey and Levi wrote.
But that doesn’t mean Americans should feel smug. The report contains plenty of discouraging news as well.
For the first time, a state has passed the 35% mark for adult obesity. And it happened with not one, but two: Mississippi and West Virginia are tied, with 35.1% of their adult population reporting a BMI above 30.
Rounding out the 10 most obese states were Arkansas (34.6%), Tennessee (33.7%), Kentucky (33.2%) Louisiana (33.1%), Oklahoma (32.5%), Alabama (32.4%), Indiana (31.8%) and South Carolina (31.7%).
At the other end of the spectrum, the places with the lowest obesity rates were Colorado (21.3%), Hawaii (21.8%), the District of Columbia (22.9%), Massachusetts (23.6%), California and Utah (24.1% for both), Montana (24.6%), Vermont (24.7%), Connecticut (25%) and New York (25.4%).
These figures are based on self-reported data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, an ongoing health survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They probably underestimate the true extent of Americans’ girth since “people tend to underreport their weight and exaggerate their height,” the two factors that determine BMI, the report notes.
The authors expressed concern that obesity rates remain higher for African Americans and Latinos. Nationwide, nearly 48% of African American and 42.5% of Latino adults were obese in 2011-12, compared with slightly less than 33% for whites. Among children, 20% of African Americans, 22% of Latinos and 14% of whites were obese.
There are economic disparities too. Among adults who make less than $15,000 per year, 33% were obese in 2012. But among adults who earned at least $50,000 per year, the obesity rate was 25%.
Similarly, among adults who were at least 26 in 2012, 35% of those who didn’t finish high school were obese, compared with 22% who finished college, including a technical college.
The report outlines several policy initiatives that could help Americans make more progress, including programs to encourage kids to get more exercise; improve the nutritional quality of foods and beverages in schools and in lower-income neighborhoods; limits on the way foods and drinks are marketed in schools and in the media; changes in the Farm Bill that allow SNAP recipients to use their benefits at farmer’s markets; and having doctors, hospitals and health insurers take a more active role in battling the bulge and preventing the chronic diseases that come with it.