You can’t eat healthy food if you can’t find it.
That’s the premise behind programs in four states that have seen their obesity rates drop.
A new report revealed these and other findings on the obesity rates in the United States.
Between 2014 and 2015, adult obesity rates decreased in Minnesota, Montana, New York, and Ohio.
They went up in Kansas and Kentucky.
The rates remained stable in the rest of the states.
Nonetheless, obesity rates exceed 35 percent in four states, 30 percent in 25 states. The rate is also above 20 percent in all states.
Louisiana has the highest adult obesity rate — 36 percent — while Colorado’s rate — 20 percent — is the lowest.
Over the past decade, childhood obesity rates have stabilized at about 17 percent. Rates are typically going down among 2- to 5-year-olds, and are stable among 6- to 11-year-olds. However obesity rates have increased among 12- to 19-year-olds.
“We are making some progress but there’s more yet to do,” said Albert Lang, a spokesperson for the Trust for America’s Health. The nonprofit behind the report.
As a country, we need to improve nutrition education, boost activity in early childhood, simplify the process of choosing healthier foods, and target inequalities, Lang told Healthline.
He said it’s the first time the organization has noticed a decrease in obesity rates in some states. His group publishes the report annually.
“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this happened,” he said.
Reducing obesity in America
The move to shrink obesity rates has been a big challenge across the country. But states that are making progress could provide guidance to others.
Minnesota, for example, formed the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP). It’s a coalition of medical professionals, policymakers, educators, and other local organizations. The group is committed to making healthy foods and exercise a standard part of children’s lives.
As a result, grocery stores and schools adopted a nutrition scoring system to encourage families to make healthier choices. Schools also updated their wellness policies.
From 2008 to 2015, the obesity rate among 12-year-old children in one town dropped from 17 to 13 percent.
Officials say the program is clearly working since obesity rates are down and likely will continue to decrease.
Julie Myhre, division director for the Minnesota Department of Health’s Office of Statewide Health Improvement Initiatives, told Healthline that other states can use their SHIP program as a model.
The infrastructure is a locally driven effort where communities get to choose the strategies they deploy.
“There’s no single or simple solution as the obesity epidemic is as complex as its solutions, but prevention matters,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Health said they are “optimistic” that the state is moving in the right direction.
Ohio’s Creating Healthy Communities program is part of the state’s effort to combat obesity.
It includes the Good Food Here initiative. The program expanded healthy food access at grocery stores in low-income areas where fresh produce is hard to find.
The state’s Early Childhood Obesity Prevention program is also instrumental in lowering obesity rates.
Lang pointed out that there are a few interesting disparities in the report:
- 9 of the 11 states with the highest obesity rates are in the South
- 22 of the 25 states with the highest rates of obesity are in the South and Midwest
- 10 of the 12 states with the highest rates of diabetes are in the South
- In 14 states, adult obesity rates are at or above 40 percent for African-Americans
- Adult obesity rates are at or above 30 percent in 40 states and Washington, D.C. for African-Americans
- Adult obesity rates are at or above 30 percent in 29 states for Latinos
- Adult obesity rates are at or above 30 percent in 16 states for whites
Understanding why these disparities exist, and how to address them, may be vital to lowering obesity rates in the long run.
Food access plays a role
Fighting obesity isn’t just about encouraging people to exercise and eat well. Especially in areas where healthy foods are sparse or overpriced.
That’s why part of the equation involves making sure more people have access to healthy options.
Brian Lang, the director of the National Campaign for Healthy Food Access at The Food Trust, a nonprofit, said expanding access is key and may in turn may lower obesity rates.
His group has worked in New York, one of the states that saw a drop in its obesity rate.
“Access to healthy food is one part of a comprehensive approach to improve peoples’ health,” he told Healthline.
Educating people on proper nutrition and exercise, and enacting policies that encourage people to become more active also help.
Marketing healthier foods is useful but people need to have healthier options in their grocery stores — something his group is focused on achieving.
Lawmakers in Ohio and Minnesota are also taking this approach. They bolstered access to healthy choices in communities where fresh, wholesome food is scarce.
“If there isn’t a store they can easily get to where they can buy the stuff, you’re going to see real limitations with what you can achieve from those [marketing] efforts,” Lang said.