Q&A: West Virginia moves down to second place in highest obesity rate

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A new report by Trust for America’s Health, State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, analyzes obesity statistics from 2018 in order to explain the current state of obesity in the nation and propose solutions. The latest data shows that the United States adult obesity rate recently passed the 40% mark for the first time in recorded history. We spoke with Rhea Farberman, Director of Communications at TFAH, about the West Virginia statistics, what factors are influencing the state’s obesity rate, and what could be done to prevent the rate from rising further.

Q: Is there anything that particularly stands out for you about West Virginia’s statistics?

RF: One notable data point this year is that Mississippi is leading the country in terms of obesity…For many years, West Virginia did have the worst obesity rate in the nation. You now have the second worst. I guess that’s a little bit of progress. Mississippi’s obesity rate is just slightly over 40%, and you’re just slightly under 40%. [West Virginia’s] obesity rate is 39%, so slight incremental progress, but certainly the state has a long way to go when you think about what the data means. It means that 4 out of 10 adults in the state have obesity, and when we know that obesity is associated with so many serious health issues–right now, associated with very serious COVID pandemic impacts, including hospitalization and death–we have to recognize that obesity is a really serious problem. 

Q: What are some of the factors that West Virginia has against it?

RF: Well, poverty is very much associated with obesity, so the state’s poverty rate is part of it. Access to healthy food choices is a problem in many communities, so if you live in a community that doesn’t have a full-service supermarket, or you’re a distance away from a full-service supermarket and maybe you don’t have transportation there–you don’t have a car. There isn’t public transportation available to get you to a full-service supermarket. What are your food choices? And very often, your choices are fast food outlets, or a local corner market that doesn’t have any fresh produce. So your food choices are limited, and you’re often directed through no choice of your own at less than optimal food choices, because that’s what you have access to.

Another issue we really need to be concerned about, particularly during the pandemic, is food insecurity. Food insecurity and obesity are related to one another. It sounds counter-intuitive. Food insecurity is about not having enough to provide food for your family. What happens when families are trying to stretch their food budget is they often spend a lot of that budget on low-cost foods because they have to, so they’re making the lower cost option. They’re making the fast food option. They’re buying food that is convenient, it’s less expensive, but it’s high in calories and it’s low in nutritional value. That’s leading to overweight and obesity. 

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Q: What are some things we can do to help this? 

RF: Basically, it’s a complex problem, and there’s no one easy solution. There’s no single sector solution. We’re going to have to look at a cross sector solution, but there are a number of policies that should be in place, an investment that should be made that are going to help turn the tide on the obesity crisis. We need to make sure that our federal nutritional support programs are generous enough to move families out of food insecurity and make sure that they can make healthy choices and put healthy food on the table. Those programs are such programs as WIC and SNAP, and they help millions of Americans meet their food needs, but we need to make sure that they’re meeting their food needs with healthy choices.

We should also look at the built environment and make sure that–for generations, we’ve designed our transportation systems and our roads for the automobile. We should be designing our transportation system and roads for the automobile, the pedestrian, and the bicycle rider. So, let’s give people a safe place for people to ride a bike, take a walk, walk to school, walk to the grocery stores so that they can get physical activity as part of their daily routine.

Schools are also part of the solution because most kids consume between half and two-thirds of their calories during the school day, so let’s make sure those meals are nutritious. During the pandemic, that’s particularly important because even though the kids aren’t reporting to the school building, they still need access to those school breakfast and school lunches. It’s really a critical need for many, many families and many kids. So, states are doing good job of making sure they bring the meals to where students are today, whether that’s at a bus stop or a local community center or maybe at the school building, but we need to make sure those programs continue. 

Q: Do you know if West Virginia is lacking in any way, in terms of policy?

Well, I’d say that some things that West Virginia could look at–and some of these are federal mandate policies–but for instance, some cities have experimented with sugary beverage taxes where they put a tax on sweetened beverages and sugary beverages to encourage people to make the healthier choice. Drink more water, for instance, and in those communities, there is a reduction in consumption of sugary beverages, and sugary beverages are connected with obesity, and the by-product of this is a new revenue source of money from the tax that they can use for health promotions programs and obesity prevention programs, so that’s a win-win. It’s something that a city in West Virginia could attempt, a community, a county in the state could attempt, or the state could mandate. 

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

The one thing that I would add is that we don’t spend enough money in this country on prevention. Right now, the government spends about 31 cents per person on obesity prevention programs. Compare that to the billions of dollars we spend on healthcare, much of which is spent for illnesses that are associated with obesity, like diabetes and heart disease, so if we were to invest more on prevention, we save money overtime on healthcare spending. 

You can read “The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America 2020” by clicking here.

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