After decades of bad news on the obesity front, a new report finally seems to offer a glimmer of hope.
"F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2013" revealed that for the first time in 30 years, the nation's obesity rate held steady in every state but Arkansas. The annual report was published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in collaboration with Trust for America's Health.
While this was the first time U.S. obesity rates stayed flat, previous reports gave hints that the epidemic might be slowing down. In 2005, every state but Colorado experienced an increase in obesity rates. In 2008, rates increased in 37 states. In 2010, rates increased in 28 states. By 2011, rates increased in 16 states.
"This leveling off shows the first time we're seeing progress in fighting the obesity epidemic," said Michele Larkin, the assistant vice president of health at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "We are starting to see a payoff from the policies being put into place that encourage people to become more active and eat healthier."
Larkin said that individuals, communities, schools, policymakers and even the food industry have gotten the message that people are looking for more ways to stay active and eat healthy. She points to New York City and Philadelphia as examples of cities that have aggressively pursued public policies, such as posting calories on menus, limiting trans fats and instituting bike share programs, to reduce obesity rates.
The report added to other recent good news on the weight-gain front. Earlier this month, an analysis released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 18 states and one U.S. territory experienced a slight decline in obesity rates among preschool children from low-income families.
However, not all the report's findings were so encouraging. Thirteen states now have adult obesity rates higher than 30 percent, and 41 states have rates of at least 25 percent. As recently as 2007, only one state, Mississippi, had an adult obesity rate of higher than 30 percent. In 1980, no state was higher than 15 percent on this measure. Currently, every state has an adult obesity rate higher than 20 percent.
Some distressing trends continue, the report found. Southern states still have the largest percentage of heavy residents, just as they have in all 10 of the previous reports. Of the states with the 20 highest adult obesity rates, only Pennsylvania was not in the South or Midwest. Louisiana, at 34.7 percent, is the highest, followed closely by Mississippi at 34.6 percent. At 20.5 percent, Colorado remains the lowest.
Obesity rates remain highest for low-income Americans with the least amount of education. More than 35 percent of adults who didn't graduate from high school were obese, compared with 21 percent of those who went to college. And 31 percent who make less than $25,000 a year are now obese, compared with 25.2 percent of those making more than $50,000 a year.
The rates for the extremely obese have continued to climb as well. Americans with a body mass index greater than 40 is now at 6.3 percent – a 350 percent jump since 1980.
Although nearly 5 percent of children now fall into this super obese category, younger people tend to be slimmer on the whole. The "F as in Fat" report found obesity rates for 18-to25-year-olds were lower than 28 percent in every state, while obesity rates for baby boomers were higher than 30 percent in 41 states and higher than 40 percent in Louisiana and Alabama.
Larkin said that the report gave hope that the U.S. may finally be getting its weight under control, but she found the high baby boomer rates particularly troubling, because they were the largest group in the population.
"Currently, only one state exceeds a 30 percent obesity rate for seniors. With the large wave of obese people poised to enter a Medicare system already burdened with $210 billion in direct health care costs related to obesity, we have to think about how this will have an impact," she said.
A Columbia University study released Thursday underscored the impact obesity has already had on the health of Americans. It attributed up to 18 percent of U.S. deaths between 1986 and 2006 to excess pounds.
Another disturbing shift showed men gaining girth at a faster rate than women. "For the first time ever, men now have a higher obesity rate than women," she noted.
Ten years ago the obesity rate was 27.5 percent for men and 33.4 percent for women. The men's rate now stands at 35.8 percent, and the women's at 35.5 percent.
"It's important that we don't lose sight of the fact we're seeing the first signs of progress, but we have to do a better job of working together to solve the obesity crisis," Larkin said. "This is a problem that impacts us all whether we are obese or not."