Vermont's obesity rate inches upward in new study

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Vermont ranks 40th in the country in the category. According the the 2018 State of Obesity report, 27.6% of the state's population has obesity.

Vermont has the 12th-lowest adult obesity rate in the United States, a new report shows.

But that ranking masks a larger, troubling trend: The state's adult obesity rate has continued to move upward and now stands at 27.6 percent - up from 17 percent in 2000 and 10.7 percent in 1990.

That trend has slowed in recent years, as state officials and health advocates have worked to address factors behind obesity such as poor diet and exercise habits - especially among children.

However, there are no simple solutions, said Julie Arel, health promotion and disease prevention director for the Vermont Department of Health.

"This is not a ship that we're going to turn quickly," Arel said.

The new statistics come by way of a State of Obesity study released Wednesday by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The study found that, in 2017, adult obesity rates ranged from 38.1 percent in West Virginia to 22.6 percent in Colorado. Some of the country's highest rates were found in the south, whereas the lowest rates generally occurred in western states and in New England.

Overall, though, the trend lines are not positive. From 2012 to 2017, the study's authors say, 31 states showed statistically significant increases in obesity. During that same time frame, no state saw a statistically significant decrease.

Longer-term trends are even more stark. For instance, only two states and the District of Columbia posted adult obesity rates under 25 percent last year. In 2000, there was no state over 25 percent.

"As a nation, we're getting heavier, we're getting bigger," Arel said. "Vermont is following the same trend."

The study's authors define "obesity" as body fat and body fat distribution that exceeds the levels considered healthy. Using body mass index as a measurement, an index of 30 and above is considered obese for adults.

More Vermont-specific numbers detail the obesity epidemic in the state. Its adult obesity rate rose steadily from 1990 onward. Those increases slowed in the mid-2000s and then hovered for a while in the 23 percent to 26 percent range before ticking upward again in 2016 and 2017.

For 2017, the state's highest adult obesity rate - 31.6 percent - is among the 45-64 age group. The obesity rate is slightly higher in men (28 percent) than in women (27.2 percent).

When compared with other states, "our rank is positive contextually," said Marissa Parisi, executive director of RiseVT. "But we're talking about 30 percent of our (adult) population, almost, with obesity. What that says about the future of people living with chronic disease, that's what concerning to me."

In a 2017 report, the state Health Department outlined that same concern. "Obesity is associated with poorer mental health outcomes, reduced quality of life and numerous chronic health conditions that are the leading causes of death in the U.S. and worldwide including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers," officials wrote.

There's an economic toll, too: The new Robert Wood Johnson/Trust for America's Health report says obesity costs the nation $149 billion annually in medical expenses and lowers economic productivity by $66 billion each year.

It's not easy to move those numbers in a more positive direction, especially if officials and educators don't get a better handle on childhood obesity.

There is mixed data on that topic. The new report uses 2016 figures showing that 11.8 percent of Vermont children age 10-17 are obese, the nation's eighth-lowest rate in that category. Within the same age group, Vermont has the third-lowest combined overweight and obesity rate.

But a recent RiseVT study of more than 1,700 elementary school children in Franklin and Grand Isle counties showed that 41 percent are either overweight or obese, raising concerns about those kids' long-term health and social development.

Health advocates say they see such data as a "call to action."

For example, RiseVT is expanding its healthy living programs statewide via partnerships with hospitals and OneCare Vermont. And state officials have a program called 3-4-50 that links three behaviors - lack of physical activity, poor diet and tobacco use - with four diseases that result in more than 50 percent of deaths in Vermont.

Historical obesity rate comparisons should be accompanied by the fact that "the context that we live in is changing," Arel said. She and Susan Kamp, the department's director of physical activity, nutrition and women's health, identified culprits like escalating sugar content in foods, a "supersizing" of food servings and a more sedentary lifestyle.

"What the Health Department is trying to do is change the context back," Arel said.

Examples of recent progress include revising the state's child care program guidelines to require more physical activity; providing more options and locations for breastfeeding; implementing nutritional changes in school lunch programs; and boosting the state's farm-to-school program.

That latter program "has been found to increase kids' interest in eating fruits and vegetables," Kamp said.

"We have a long way to go, but there are a lot of things happening in the state," she added

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