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Let’s Get Real About Obesity: Rates on the Rise

September 28, 2018 | Amy DeLisio, Center for Wellness and Nutrition

According to new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month, seven states had adult obesity rates at or above 35 percent in 2017.

This is up from five states in 2016, and no state had a statistically significant improvement in its obesity rate over the past year, according to new national data reported in the 15th annual State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America released this month by the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Levels of obesity vary considerably from state to state, with a low of 22.6 percent in Colorado and a high of 38.1 percent in West Virginia.

Obesity levels are highest in Black and Latino communities, low-income neighborhoods and rural communities. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data, adult obesity rates for Latinos (47.0 percent) and African-Americans (46.8 percent) are much higher nationally than among Whites (37.9 percent), and 34.2 percent of adults living in rural areas have obesity compared to 28.7 percent of adults living in metro areas.

Why is America so obese? We need to look at how the existing environment and food systems influence community and make healthy options more (or less) available and affordable.

Multibillion-dollar marketing efforts by the food industry constantly push high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, whole communities lack access to fresh produce, and the expense of high-quality foods leave low-income consumers locked out. Schools have cut back on physical education, more adults sit at desks all day, and playgrounds and parks in many communities aren’t safe enough for people to play and exercise.

Obesity is a social justice issue. Studies have shown that companies disproportionately target unhealthy food marketing to Black and Latino teens. Low-income communities and rural communities often have limited access to healthy options and full-service grocery stores.

The Center for Wellness and Nutrition currently works with communities and small businesses to increase access to healthy foods for low-income shoppers through a variety of initiatives, including expanding the quality and quantity of fresh produce at corner and convenience stores, supporting “double up bucks” programs at Farmers’ Markets, and educating low-income consumers about how they can use their CalFresh and WIC benefits to stretch their food dollars.

We also support youth and their adult allies across California in youth-led participatory action research projects (YPAR), where young people find solutions to complex problems affecting their health in their community and raise their voice to influence positive changes. Youth have successfully advocated for healthy cafeteria changes at their schools, new playground equipment, community gardens, and free water stations in their school and community.

We need a system-wide approach to obesity prevention and it is essential to stop blaming individuals or communities for this epidemic. The State of Obesity report emphasizes the urgent need to increase evidence-based obesity prevention programs to prevent disease and offers 40 recommendations for federal, state and local policymakers, the restaurant and food industries, and the healthcare system.

Obesity is a complex, multi-faceted problem that leads to chronic and debilitating conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Public and private organizations alike need to invest resources to implement community-wide solutions that make health accessible for all.

Find out more about PHI's Center for Wellness and Nutrition

Amy DeLisio, MPH, RD is the Director, Center for Wellness and Nutrition