Obesity Trends in America: 2000-2018

July 25, 2019

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blog_statesmapStatistics show that America’s obesity epidemic is still deepening on the whole, but how does it break down by individual state? We thought it would be interesting to take a look at how the states compare when it comes to body weight statistics within the last 20 years, and attempt to hypothesize about the statistical disparity between them.

We should point out a couple of important things before getting to the statistics that provide context for why these numbers matter.
First, the clinical definition of obesity is having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher. BMI has a directly proportional relationship with increased risk of developing over 59 other chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even some forms of cancer. It’s important to know the standard method of measuring and diagnosing obesity so you can personally understand where you fit into the big picture.

Second, no state in the union has been able to reduce its overall obesity rate in the last two decades. In addition to placing a burden on the individuals suffering from the chronic disease, it places a system-wide burden on health care and public services. Overall, nearly forty percent of the US adults are suffering from obesity, while two-thirds are either overweight or obese, which again, leads to higher rates of chronic disease. For instance, the estimated cost of type 2 diabetes in the United States in 2012 was $245 billion, of which $176 billion comes from direct medical costs. Despite the huge investment in addressing this disease, the United States is falling behind other developed nations in life expectancy. In short, higher obesity rates create higher rates of multiple types of stress.

The Breakdown

To simplify our comparison, we thought it would be helpful to list the top 10 states with the lowest and highest rates of obesity. You can see this in the table below.

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) ranked Colorado as the least obese state in the nation with an obesity rate of 22.6% while South Carolina tops the list of states with the highest obesity rate.

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What drives the differences in higher and lower obesity rates in specific states?

According to a study by Brown University, the rise in obesity rates can be connected to several factors including larger food portions, lower activity levels, less healthy diets, and an unhealthy mindset towards food and weight. So, it should come as no surprise that a state’s obesity rate is tightly tied to the ability to counter these unhealthy habits.

Much of that effort is dependent on simple access to education about good food choices, markets offering fresh produce and whole foods, and public areas for physical activity. For example, Hawaii and California lead the nation in access to healthy food sources according to the United Health Foundation, and consequently have relatively low obesity rates. On the other end of the spectrum, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas have the least amount of access to healthy foods and find themselves on the top ten list of most obese states.

The weather may also play a role in how residents engage in healthy behaviors. For instance, Mississippi summers don’t often make it appealing, or even safe, for a brisk walk around the block. That’s also assuming there is a safe place to walk. Many areas present a challenge to those needing to lose weight because they lack the public infrastructure, like sidewalks and parks, to encourage regular physical activity.

Another highly complex factor that may be driving the difference between the states is socio-economics. Access to sources of healthy weight behaviors tends to exist in areas with greater affluence. Tight budgets in lower-income areas and lack of availability of healthy food choices may leave many residents in the more obese states with no other option than to buy low-cost, high-fat, sugary foods. In addition to promoting weight gain, these types of food options are also often engineered to create food addiction. In this type of environment, sometimes called food deserts, it might be easier to understand how consumers might become trapped in a cycle of weight gain and chronic disease.

Will this EVER change?

Obesity rates across the nation have been steadily increasing for more than two decades, so we don’t claim that it will be easy to solve this epidemic. The problem of obesity exists on a macro level across all states and can only be corrected by systematically improving economic conditions and problems with access to healthy options that many states have. We must fight to create environments that promote healthy lifestyles for all people, while doing our part to improve our own lives.

On an individual level, we can take certain steps to help improve our health. If you are just beginning your weight loss journey, it’s best to start with a few steps and keep it simple. You’ll find in time that your pace will pick up and you’ll start to see and feel real weight loss progress:

-Get educated on what promotes weight loss and what does not

-Identify resources and places in your neighborhood where you can access healthy foods and physical activity

-If you find you live in an area with limited options, contact your local representative to understand the reasons why. Nothing changes if you don’t speak up!

At the end of the day, it is the sum of the actions of individuals that moves the needle. Understand how your actions and behaviors not only impact your own well being, but those in your community. If we all take responsibility for ourselves, we can work towards a healthier United States.

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