Three in 10 Georgia adults are obese, a rate that ranks the state 19th in the nation, a new report has found.
Georgia’s 30.5 percent obesity rate in 2014 means the state has not seen much change in this category over the past couple of years, said the report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, released this week.
Most of Georgia’s Southern counterparts had higher adult obesity rates. Four of the top five states are in the South: Arkansas (with the highest rate in the U.S., at 35.9 percent), Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
Georgia’s adult obesity rate has risen from 20.6 percent in 2000 and from 10.1 percent in 1990, mirroring a national trend, said the report. The state’s rate in 2013 was 30.3 percent.
“While we recognize there is significant work to be done in Georgia to reduce the adult obesity rate, the fact the state remained statistically flat from year to year is a positive,” Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, said in a statement to GHN about the data.
“We are seeing significant improvements in our youngest Georgians,’’ she added, citing the state’s SHAPE program to reduce childhood obesity and its Power Up for 30 initiative, which encourages schools to give children an additional 30 minutes of physical activity daily.
Obesity puts some 78 million Americans at an increased risk of various health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer, the report said.
Georgia has an adult diabetes rate of 11.6 percent, ranking 10th in the nation, and a hypertension rate of 35 percent, ranking 12th, the report added.
“Efforts to prevent and reduce obesity over the past decade have made a difference,” said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health in a statement. “Stabilizing rates is an accomplishment. However, given the continued high rates, it isn’t time to celebrate. We’ve learned that if we invest in effective programs, we can see signs of progress. But, we still haven’t invested enough to really tip the scales yet.”
More attention and funding have gone to preventing obesity over the past decade, said Rodney Lyn, an obesity expert and an associate dean in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University. These programs include serving healthier food in schools, and communities developing more parks and greenspace, he added. Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has been reduced, Lyn said.
“There are signs of progress among children,’’ including declines in obesity rates among 2- to 5-year-olds, Lyn said Tuesday. “We have a long way to go.”
The report noted that it is easier and more effective to prevent obesity in children, by helping every child maintain a healthy weight, than it is to reverse trends later.
Adults with a “body mass index” of 25 to 29.9 are considered overweight, while individuals with a BMI of 30 or more are considered obese, according to the report. Data for the study were obtained from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.
Colorado had the lowest adult obesity rate, at 21.3 percent.
Lyn of Georgia State said there’s a heavy burden of chronic diseases stemming from obesity. “We haven’t really seen the full toll of this epidemic,” he said.
Minorities have a higher rate of obesity, with African-Americans at a 37.5 percent rate in Georgia, versus 27.5 percent for whites.
Lyn said poverty is a key factor in a person’s risk for obesity. Many people don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and may live in communities where the only options for meals outside the home are fast food restaurants. “In the South there are unhealthy dietary habits,’’ he added.
“Food insecurity” related to poverty is another significant challenge, he said. Those who are eating less or skipping meals to stretch food budgets may overeat when food does become available, resulting in chronic ups and downs in food intake that can contribute to weight gain, researchers say.
Marsha Davis, associate dean of the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, said that though awareness of the obesity problem has increased, “we have a lot of challenges ahead of us, with the high rates in the South.”
Davis, noting the racial disparities in the statistics, added, “We want to see a lowering of obesity across all races and all income statuses.”
She also said there’s generally a rural/urban divide as well. “The Atlanta BeltLine is a wonderful opportunity for Atlantans to be physically active,” Davis said. “How can we create those opportunities all across the state?”
Andy Miller has been a health care journalist for the past 20 years. From 1992 to mid-2009, he covered health care for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.