Obesity in America: Are We Turning the Corner?

Sep 4, 2014, 9:18 AM, Posted by John R. Lumpkin

A woman shops at a fruit stand with her toddler.

What word describes the current state of obesity in the United States?

How about the unexpected: Optimistic.

You might think that would be the least likely descriptor. After all, the annual report The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, released today by Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), says adult obesity rates went up in six states over last year.

The obesity rate is now at or above 30 percent in 20 states (as high as 35 percent in Mississippi and West Virginia), and not below 21 percent in any. Colorado has the lowest rate at 21.3 percent, which still puts it higher than today’s highest state—Mississippi—was 20 years ago.  The childhood obesity headlines are difficult to swallow as well. As of 2011-2012, nearly one out of three children and teens ages 2 to 19 is overweight or obese. Similar to adults, racial and ethnic disparities persist. And rates are higher still among Black and Latino communities.

But if we look a little deeper, we see a hint of promise on the horizon.

Adult obesity rates have largely stabilized over the past two years while childhood obesity rates have leveled off over the last decade. Childhood obesity rates have even declined in a number of places in recent years—from Anchorage, Alaska, to Eastern Massachusetts, in California and Mississippi, in big cities like New York and Philadelphia, and in rural areas like Vance and Granville counties in North Carolina.

Plus, for the first time in a decade, data show a downward trend in obesity rates among young children from low-income families in many states. The importance of this development cannot be overstated. These are children at particularly high risk for obesity and whose families have the fewest opportunities to make healthy choices. Preventing obesity early makes it much more likely for a child to maintain a healthy weight into adolescence and adulthood. Research shows that kids who receive a healthy start in life stand a much better chance of graduating college, earning higher-paying jobs, avoiding chronic diseases, and living longer lives.

Over the past few years, RWJF has spotlighted several communities that are working to build a Culture of Health, setting a national example for others to follow. Every school in Mingo County, W.Va., for example—home to Williamson, one of six winners of the 2014 RWJF Culture of Health Prize—has joined the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program to promote healthy eating and physical activity for all students. A new farmers’ market and unique “Prescription Vegetables” program incentivizes healthy eating for all residents, particular seniors and those who are low-income.

In Santa Cruz County, Calif.—one of the inaugural RWJF Culture of Health Prize winners in 2013—the youth-led advocacy group Jóvenes SANOS is on a mission to encourage healthier eating for all county residents. After noticing that there were almost no healthy food options around the high school, its members worked with the city council to pass a new restaurant ordinance that requires new restaurants to offer and highlight healthy options. They’re also working to bring healthy vending machine options to the county’s metro bus stations.

Or consider the Midwest city “Mighty” Manistique, Mich., whose local farmers’ market placed second nationally in the America’s Favorite Farmers’ Market contest in the boutique-size market category. In Manistique, city leaders turned a former dumping ground into a 40-acre park complete with sledding hill, archery range, nature trails, baseball field, basketball and tennis courts, and swimming beach.

Now, let me be clear: when it comes to obesity, there’s still too much bad news and too few success stories.  We’re starting to tip the scale in the right direction but much more work is needed to keep the momentum going. It will take strong and ongoing commitment from policy, industry, and community leaders across the nation to create policies and environments that make healthy choices the easy and everyday choices for all of us, no matter where we live.

When the description of obesity in America turns from “optimistic” to “reversed,” I believe the Williamsons, Santa Cruzes, and Manistiques, and hundreds of other communities like those, will be the reasons we won the fight. 

John Lumpkin

John Lumpkin, MD, MPH, is senior vice president and director, targeted teams for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Read his full bio.