When the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health released their annual State of Obesity report last year, Kansas was ranked the seventh most obese state in the country. From 2014 to 2015, the adult obesity rate rose from 31.3 percent to 34.2 percent, which made Kansas one of only two states that saw a statistically significant year-over-year increase.
However, this year’s report offers more promising news — between 2015 and 2016, our obesity rate fell from 34.2 percent back to 31.2 percent. This means Kansas is the only state that enjoyed a significantly lower obesity rate in 2016 than 2015, and it adjusts our rank from the seventh most obese state in the U.S.to the 22nd.
Don Schwarz is a vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and he says the organization is “excited to see some progress in Kansas.” While he speculates that the improvement might be due to a statewide program that assists businesses with obesity prevention, he says it’s difficult to determine “why a rate goes up or down over the course of a year.”
Regardless of what accounts for the lower rate, it’s welcome news. But we need to remember that the new rate is a negligible improvement over 2014, and Kansas is still doing worse than most of the country when it comes to obesity. Our obesity rate has also more than doubled since 1995, when it was only 13.5 percent — a startling trend that’s consistent with the rest of the U.S. Even as late as 2000, no state had an obesity rate above 25 percent, but 46 states now surpass this threshold. Moreover, the rate exceeds 35 percent in five states and 30 percent in 25 states.
Of the 25 states with the highest obesity rates, 23 are in the South and the Midwest.
The State of Obesity report also identifies dramatic racial and socioeconomic discrepancies in levels of obesity: “Adult obesity rates have striking racial and ethnic inequities — with rates above 40 percent for Blacks in 15 states, rates at or above 35 percent among Latinos in nine states compared with rates above 35 percent among Whites in one state.”
In Kansas, 31.5 percent of whites are obese, but the rate climbs to 35.2 percent for Latinos and a remarkable 43.1 percent for blacks. Meanwhile, Kansans who make less than $15,000 per year and don’t have a college degree are 30 percent more likely to be obese.
The range of health problems caused by obesity is vast and well-understood, and it includes hypertension, coronary heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, stroke and gallbladder disease. Obesity can also have harmful effects on a person’s quality of life, and it can lead to depression and anxiety. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Health Economics found that obesity-related annual health care costs are between $147 billion and $210 billion in the U.S. However, a 2016 study by the Milken Institute argues that the total economic cost (including “obesity’s drag on attendance and productivity at work”) is $1.4 trillion every year. The Milken report also observed that more than 320,000 deaths were caused by weight-related health issues in 2014.
Even though 2016 was a good year for the battle against obesity in Kansas, it remains a staggering problem in our state and around the country. We should be proud of our improvement, but this is no time for complacency.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.