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Childhood Obesity Rates Stabilize While Disparities Persist


A new report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sheds light on the most recent statistics of adult and childhood obesity rates and disparities in the United States.

The report, The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, has determined that adult obesity rates have remained high and increased in some states, while the national childhood obesity rate has leveled off and in some places declined, though disparities exist and severe childhood obesity may actually be on the rise.

According to the report, more than one in 10 children become obese between two and five years of age, and nearly 33 percent of children ages two through 19 are overweight or obese. Overall, 16.9 percent of children in the U.S. are obese and 31.8 percent are either obese or overweight.

Additionally, 5 percent of children ages six to 11 are severely obese. Severe obesity in children is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than 120 percent of the 95th percentile of children of the same age and sex.

In adults, obesity rates have topped 35 percent for the first time in not one but two states – Mississippi and West Virginia, tied at 35.1 percent – and are not lower than 21 percent in any state, with Colorado coming in with the lowest rate of 21.3 percent. The study also found that “the number of severely obese adults has quadrupled in the past 30 years.” Obesity in adults is defined as having a BMI of 30 or more, while severe obesity involves a BMI of 40 or more.

Race, location, income and ethnic disparities are apparent in the study’s findings on adults as well.

“Obesity in America is at a critical juncture. Obesity rates are unacceptably high, and the disparities in rates are profoundly troubling,” said Jeffrey Levi, PhD, executive director of TFAH.

For example, among Whites, the adult obesity rates were over 30 percent in 10 states, while the rates for Blacks were 30 percent in 41 states, and further, at or above 40 percent in 11 states; Latino populations’ adult obesity rates topped 35 percent in five states.

The report also pointed out that the South had the highest rate of obesity, with nine out of the 10 states with the highest obesity rates being located there. In fact, all 20 of the states with the highest rates were located in the South or Midwest, while most of the states with lower rates are in the Northeast or West. Income also seems to play a role in obesity, as more than 33 percent of people over 18 who earn less than $15,000 a year were obese. Of those who earned $50,000 or more a year, only 25.4 percent were obese.

Even among children, disparities begin to emerge. Among kids ages nine to 18, the obesity rates were: 22.4 percent among Hispanics, 20.1 percent among Blacks, and 14.1 percent among Whites. Encouragingly, however, the report notes that, “Between 2008 and 2011, 18 states and one U.S. territory experienced a decline in obesity rates among preschoolers from low-income families.”

Other disparities revealed by the study include statistics such as:

  • 82 percent of Black women are overweight or obese compared to 63.2 percent of White women and 77.2 percent of Latino women.
  • 40.7 percent of Latino boys are obese or overweight compared with 27.8 percent of White boys.
  • 37 percent of Hispanic girls are obese or overweight compared to 29.2 percent of White girls.

“While adult rates are stabilizing in many states, these data suggest that our overall progress in reversing America’s obesity epidemic is uneven and fragile,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, RWJF president and CEO. “A growing number of cities and states have reported decreases in obesity among children, showing that when we make comprehensive changes to policies and community environments, we can build a Culture of Health that makes healthy choices the easy and obvious choices for kids and adults alike. Going forward, we must spread what works to prevent obesity to every state and region, with special focus on those communities where rates remain the highest.”

The report also includes a series of recommendations for various ways to combat the obesity epidemic in America, involving ideas around affordable healthy foods, safe places for physical activity and limiting the marketing of junk food to children. Recommendations from the report include:

  • Expanding access to affordable healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity by increasing resources for programs, connecting obesity-prevention initiatives with other ongoing community programs, and other approaches.
  • Providing education and addressing cultural differences to both improve people’s knowledge about nutrition and physical activity and make initiatives more relevant to their daily lives.
  • Making sustainability, community input, involvement and shared leadership top priorities of obesity-prevention initiatives from the outset.

The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America was formerly known as F as in Fat, and this report marks its 11th publication. A website has been developed to help break down the report’s findings, implications and recommendations for change and includes the full report, state rankings and interactive maps. You can also follow the conversation online at #StateofObesity.