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Adult Obesity Rates Remain High but Held Steady

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For 10 years, F as in Fat, a study by TFAH and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has raised awareness about the seriousness of the obesity epidemic. And, after decades of bad news, we're finally seeing signs of progress. Recently, we found that obesity rates remained level in every state except for one in the past year.

And, since 2005, there has been some evidence that the rate of increase has been slowing. According to data compiled by my organization and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: In 2005, every state but one experienced an increase in obesity rates; in 2008, rates increased in 37 states; in 2010, rates increased in 28 states; and in 2011, rates increased in 16 states.

In addition to the latest data showing a stable rate for adult obesity, a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this month shows 18 states and one U.S. territory experienced a decline in obesity rates among preschool children from low-income families. The report provides state-specific trends in obesity rates among children ages 2 to 4 who are enrolled in federal health and nutrition programs, such as the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

However, even with an apparent stabilization of adult rates and the first signs of decreases in childhood obesity rates, progress is uneven. For instance, in most places where rates of childhood obesity have declined, children living in lower income communities and communities of color are experiencing slower reductions in obesity or no progress at all.

Further, while stable adult rates are important, to really improve health, they have to be reversed -- as rates are incredibly high. Currently, 13 states now have adult obesity rates above 30 percent, 41 states have rates of at least 25 percent, and every state is above 20 percent, according to the report.

To put that in perspective, in 1980, no state was above 15 percent; in 1991, no state was above 20 percent; in 2000, no state was above 25 percent; and, in 2007, only Mississippi was above 30 percent.

Our analysis also found two alarming trends. Obesity rates vary greatly by age. Obesity rates for baby boomers (45-to 64-year-olds)** have reached 40 percent in two states (Alabama and Louisiana) and are 30 percent or higher in 41 states. By comparison, obesity rates for seniors (65+ years old) exceed 30 percent in only one state (Louisiana). Obesity rates for young adults (18-to 25-year-olds) are below 28 percent in every state.

This is a massive rise in adults and kids. So even if average BMI begins to go down, the health care consequences/costs may not if morbid obesity continues to rise. If you think about how much Medicare currently spends on obesity-related illnesses, you can imagine that we're about to see that balloon as the boomers are aging into obesity-related illnesses and Medicare.

And, rates of "extreme" obesity have grown dramatically over the last few decades. Rates of adult Americans with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher have grown in the past 30 years from 1.4 percent to 6.3 percent -- a 350 percent increase. Among children and teens (2-to 19-year-olds), more than 5.1 percent of males and 4.7 percent of females are now severely obese.

Still, perhaps for the first time ever, there's some good news in the obesity epidemic. Real and lasting progress is being made in the nation's effort to turn back the obesity epidemic. We know what is working to make that progress.

Our success among children has taught our nation how to prevent obesity: changing public policies, community environments, and industry practices in ways that support and promote healthy eating and physical activity. When schools, parents, policymakers and industry leaders get together, they can make the healthy choice the easy choice and improve lives.

Our challenge is to ensure that everyone shares in the benefits of what we are learning and the progress we are making. We must build a movement around a truly comprehensive approach to making our nation healthier, citizen by citizen, town by town, state by state.

In order to decrease obesity and related costs, we must ensure that policies at every level support healthy choices, and we must focus investments on prevention, including supporting the Prevention and Public Health Fund and Community Transformation Grants. In addition, all food in schools must be healthy; kids and adults should have access to more opportunities to be physically active on a regular basis; restaurants should post calorie information on menus; food and beverage companies should market only their healthiest products to children; the country should invest more in preventing disease to save money on treating it; America's transportation plans should encourage walking and biking; and everyone should be able to purchase healthy, affordable foods close to home.

** (45- to 64-year-olds includes most baby boomers, who range from 49- to 67-year-olds.)

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