According to a new “State of Obesity” report, there may be cause for a little cheer. For the first time in ten years, data has shown small declines in the rate of obesity among children from low-income families.
Only 40 states collect body mass index data for low-income children between 2 and 5 years old. But out of those states, 18 showed that obesity rates shrank between 2008 and 2011. Overall, the obesity rate only increased in 6 states in 2013.
“We are starting to see signs of progress,” the report authors wrote. “After decades of alarming increases, this year’s report shows us that childhood obesity rates have stabilized in the past decade.”
The results are encouraging, but [it’s] not exactly time to declare “mission accomplished,” health experts say. It’s sort of like improving from an “F” to a “D” grade.
Fueling The Epidemic
Hopeful signs aside, the report still reflects some troubling numbers. Mississippi and West Virginia had obesity rates of 35.1 percent, and 20 more states showed rates above 30 percent.
The economic divide is stark. In 2012, a quarter of the people who earned at least $50,000 per year were obese. Among those who make less than $15,000, that number climbs to one-third.
Kevin Frick, professor and vice dean for education at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, who previously taught a class on the economics of obesity at the university’s School of Public Health, said in order to understand the factors that cause widespread obesity, you have to look at the tradeoffs people make in their diet.
“The relative price of fats and sweets has gone down, and the relative price of fresh fruits and vegetables has gone up,” he said. “And it doesn’t take a PhD in economics to recognize that people are going to substitute to some degree, and that can change fundamentally what people are consuming.”
Frick said over the last few decades, changes in technology and the way people manage their time have also fueled rising obesity. He cited Eric Finkelstein’s book The Fattening of America, which outlines key factors like changes in family income and the explosive growth of pre-prepared foods.
“There are more double-income families now. So they have more money, and they’re willing to spend some of that on food that’s quicker to eat. Sometimes that is food that’s quicker to cook at home, sometimes that’s food from restaurants.”
Over the last century, Americans have spent less and less of their household income on groceries, and much more of that money for meals outside the home. Americans spend 6.1 percent of their household budget on food prepared in the home, and 4.9 percent on eating out, according to recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.