A new report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has revealed that the highest rates of obesity in the US are concentrated in two regions, with 23 of the 25 states with the highest rates located in the South and Midwest.
The findings of the report, entitled The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, come from an analysis of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) data Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey.
Arkansas tops the list with an adult obesity rate of 35.9%. It is one of three states with an adult obesity rate exceeding 35%, alongside West Virginia (35.7%) and Mississippi (35.5%). At the other end of the scale, Colorado has the lowest obesity rate with 21.3%, followed by the District of Columbia (21.7%) and Hawaii (22.1%).
Across the country, adult obesity rates are high, with every state above 20%. A total of 45 states have adult obesity rates above 25% and 22 states have obesity rates above 30%.
These figures are in marked contrast with those reported over the past 30 years. In 1980, no state had an adult obesity rate above 15%. In 1991, no state had an adult obesity rate above 20%.
However, these rates appear to have stabilized over the past year, with obesity rates only increasing in Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Utah.
"Efforts to prevent and reduce obesity over the past decade have made a difference," reports Jeffrey Levi, PhD, executive director of the Trust for America's Health (TFAH). "Stabilizing rates is an accomplishment. However, given the continued high rates, it isn't time to celebrate."
Obesity increases the risk of many serious chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. The CDC report that around 78.6 million adults in the US are obese.
The report also finds that, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a significant amount of crossover between the 10 states with the highest adult obesity rates and the 10 states with the highest rates of adult diabetes. Seven states appear on both lists: Arkansas, West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio and South Carolina.
Preventing obesity in children identified as key to halting obesity epidemic
As well as differences in obesity rates along geographical lines, the report details how obesity rates differ among different racial and ethnic groups. Obesity rates among African-American people are 37% higher than among white people, while rates among Latino people are more than 26% higher than among white people.
Obesity is not just a problem for adults. The report states that 16.9% of children in the US are obese, with 31.8% either overweight or obese.
The report identifies preventing obesity among children as crucial to fighting the obesity epidemic, stating that it is easier to help children to maintain a healthy weight than it is to reverse obesity in adulthood.
Lisa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, sets out what needs to be done:
"In order to build a national Culture of Health, we must help all children, no matter who they are or where they live, grow up at a healthy weight. We know that when we take comprehensive steps to help families be more active and eat healthier foods, we can see progress. Now we must extend those efforts and that progress to every community in the country."
Previous research from public health experts such as the CDC and the New York Academy of Medicine has identified policies and programs that can help communities become healthier. These include making improvements to school nutrition, extending opportunities for physical activity and health screening.
This new report has identified the areas of the country that need targeted efforts at obesity prevention the most. The figures suggest that these need to be put into practice quickly.
"We've learned that if we invest in effective programs, we can see signs of progress," says Levi. "But, we still haven't invested enough to really tip the scales yet."
Recently, Medical News Today reported on a study published in Neurology that found being overweight or obese could contribute to the development of some types of brain tumor.