Two decades from now, as many as half of Americans in all but a few states will be obese, according to a sobering report released Tuesday. But there is still time to alter that troubling trajectory, officials said.
The report, released from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America's Health, is meant to serve as a wake-up call. If current trends continue unaltered, 13 states will have adult obesity rates higher than 60 percent by 2030 while 39 states will have rates topping 50 percent. All 50 states will have rates above 44 percent. Mississippi's rate could top 66 percent.
Even Colorado, now boasting the nation's lowest obesity rate at 20.7 percent, could see an increase to almost 45 percent, according to the projections. The number-crunching is based on a mathematical model published last year in The Lancet medical journal.
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The future costs of the obesity crisis are stunning, according to the report. If rates rise unabated to the projected highs in 2030, the number of new cases of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension and arthritis could increase tenfold by 2020 and double again by 2030, the report predicts. By 2030, medical costs linked to treating obesity-related illnesses are projected to rise from $48 billion to $66 billion per year. In nine of the worst-hit states, obesity-related health costs could jump more than 20 percent.
According to the most recent government statistics, from 2009-2010, 35 percent of American adults were obese.
"The situation we're in is bad," Dwayne Proctor, director of childhood obesity programs at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told TakePart. "If rates have stabilized, then they need to reverse. We seem to be on a trajectory where a great portion of the population is going to move into this obese category if preventive measures aren't put in place."
The analysis stands in contrast to a study published in January in the Journal of the American Medical Association that suggested obesity crisis appears to be stabilizing. That report found the current 35 percent obesity rate similar to 2005-2006 levels. The 2009-2010 rate among children, birth through age 19, also showed little change from 2005-2006, with an obesity rate of 17 percent.
But Proctor says the comparison published in JAMA featured only two periods of time. This new report represents more sophisicated analysis of more data. Analyses of longer periods of time suggest little improvement to the obesity crisis.
"There is little in that [JAMA] report to make me think rates have stabilized," he says.
The new projections are only estimates, he adds. Efforts to reduce and prevent obesity on both a societal and individual level could have a big difference. The report notes that if every person at risk for becoming obese could reduce their body mass index by five percent by 2030, states could experience healthcare-cost savings of up to 7.9 percent. A five percent BMI reduction is equivalent to a 10-pound weight loss in a six-foot, 200-pound adult.
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"What that does is take people out of a risk category and move them into a healthier category," Proctor says.
That's why focusing on children at high risk for becoming obese is a great place to start to tackle the obesity crisis, he says. Providing healthy foods and more physical education time in schools could have the largest and quickest impact. He notes that changes in Arkansas schools have stabilized obesity rates in children.
In 2003, the Arkansas legislature launched the nation's first comprehensive plan to address childhood obesity by revamping school meals, increasing physical activity and implementing regular BMI screening for students. The BMI screening includes a confidential report sent to parents.
The "obesity report card," in particular, garnered national attention and some criticism. But the plan appears to be working. According to state officials, rates of obesity and overweight are now even with the 2003-2004 rates.
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Other states that have targeted schools for obesity prevention are also experiencing progress. A study from UC Davis published earlier this year found obesity rates leveled out among California school children between 2003 and 2008.
It may take concerted government action to effect such change nationwide, however. Also Tuesday, a commentary published in JAMA called for more government initiatives to handle the obesity crisis. Speaking at a JAMA press conference in New York City Tuesday, NYC health commission Thomas Farley said he agrees with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation projections.
"If we don't do anything, I think it's a fair prediction that obesity will continue to rise," Farley said.
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A growing number of public health organizations and local governments appear resolved to using government regulations and community influence to force solutions to the obesity crisis.
"Every individual has to take responsibility for what they eat and how active they are," Proctor says. "But if you live in areas without healthy foods or places to be physically active, it becomes very difficult. Governments are realizing that they will have to pay for the end result (of the obesity epidemic) if something is not done."
The report includes a list of recommendations that could help the nation avoid the worst of those scenarios. They include:
- Enacting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to enforce school meal standards.
- Finalizing the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children Guidelines, a plan created by several major federal agencies that aims to improve children's diets though changes in advertising and marketing of foods that negatively impact kids' health.
- Fully implement the National Prevention Strategy and Action Plan, a multi-agency plan from the federal government setting priorities for improving Americans' health.
The fact that so many anti-obesity programs and initiatives are already on the drawing board is a big plus, Proctor says. "We've got solutions on our hands, but we don't have widespread action on solutions."
Do you think individuals and governments can make enough to reduce the obesity crisis? Let us know in the comments.
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Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.