WELLNESS
09/23/2015 09:23 am ET Updated Sep 24, 2015

Food Insecurity And Inactivity Are Driving The Obesity Epidemic

Focusing on early childhood health is our best defense against the obesity epidemic.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Obesity rates in Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Utah are on the rise, while rates in other states are holding steady, according to a new report on the state of obesity in America from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The report paid particular attention to children's health, noting that it's easier to prevent obesity than to fight it in adults. Early childhood habits like eating well and being physically active are especially important.

As it stands, five percent of children are severely obese by ages six to 11, with the number of obese adults soaring to 30 percent among 20- to 39-year-olds and almost 40 percent among 40- to 59-year-olds.

Obesity-related health problems are costly, with estimates of the nation's financial burden topping $147 billion per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. loses an additional $4.3 billion in job absenteeism annually, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 

Adult Obesity Rate by State, 2014

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America's Health

The link between physical inactivity, food insecurity and obesity

The report, which breaks down obesity by age, state and demographic, shows a strong link between physical inactivity, food insecurity and obesity.

"Food insecurity and inactivity go hand in hand in promoting obesity because the same factors are at play," Adarsh Gupta, associate professor of family medicine at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine and director of the Center for Medical Weight Loss and Metabolic Control in Sewell, New Jersey, who was not associated with the report, told The Huffington Post. 

Areas with higher obesity rates tend to lack access to resources that promote a healthy lifestyle, such as as farmers markets, grocery stores and safe green spaces for recreation, according to Gupta.

"Some places don’t even have sidewalks, so of course the residents aren’t walking anywhere," he said. "These changes require major changes in state policies that emphasize access to affordable, healthy foods and environments that foster physical activity." 

Part of the obesity epidemic is linked to economics. The most food-insecure kids in the United States also carry the highest risk for childhood obesity, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association earlier this month. The 7,000-person study found that the most food-insecure households were 33 to 44 percent more likely to be overweight and 1.5 times more likely to be obese than secure households. 

Two states -- Arkansas and Mississippi -- have the highest state averages of food insecurity and the highest physical inactivity rates. With West Virginia, they make up the three states with the highest levels of obesity in the country, with more than 35 percent of adults suffering from the disease in each state.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines food security as "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life." People who don't have access to enough food are food insecure, a term that applies to 14 percent of U.S. households and is a big problem across the country, particularly in the South, where 90 percent of the counties with the highest food insecurity rates are located
 
Nationwide, 29 million Americans live in food deserts, or areas where limited access to fresh produce can make healthy eating a challenge. For rural families, living in a food desert means not having a grocery store within 10 miles of their home; for urban families, the food desert mark is one mile.


How do we address the root of the obesity epidemic?

Improving low-income neighborhoods' access to affordable healthy foods, as well as making sure neighborhoods are walkable and safe, would remove two major barriers to health for low-income families.

On the policy side, Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign and laws that advocate for nutritious meals in schools, like the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, are small steps toward instilling preventative health habits in children early on. 

"We need to avoid thinking of obesity as a simple matter of ‘eat less, exercise more' and consider the social and economic issues that make that hard for people," Gupta said. "Cheap food, in large portions, is a big part of what’s making us fat."

 

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