Fighting the state's rising obesity rate

By Katheran Wasson and Paul Glasser Published:

Kentucky has risen to sixth in nationwide obesity rankings, according to a report released Thursday by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Now 31.5 percent of Kentucky adults are obese, up from 30.5 percent last year. Twelve states now have obesity rates above 30 percent – four years ago, only one state was above 30 percent.

Paula Alexander, director of the Franklin County Health Department, said increasing obesity rates could mean youth today have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

“That’s terrifying,” she told The State Journal this morning.

A number of factors have contributed to increasing obesity rates, including larger portions of food, reliance on fast-food meals and less physical activity, Alexander said. Although many fast-food restaurants offer salads, they are often more expensive than hamburgers and french fries, Alexander said.

There need to be more efforts to educate families about ways to cook quick, nutritious meals, she said.

A variety of factors have led to reduced physical activity such as unsafe neighborhoods and crumbling sidewalks, Alexander said.

“When I was a kid we ran all over the neighborhood,” she said. “Now there are safety issues in some neighborhoods.”

In an effort to encourage physical activity, sidewalks in the city are being repaired and “complete streets” are being considered, Alexander said. “Complete streets” include space for cars as well as pedestrian walkways and bike lanes, she said.

“We need to work together to make it easier to do the right things,” Alexander said.

The obesity rankings for Kentucky kids are even worse – third in the nation at 21 percent of children ages 10 to 17.

Dave Steele, director of the Frankfort Y, is heading up a task force of local leaders in health care, exercise, government and education to reduce the childhood obesity rate in Franklin County.

The group has been meeting for over a year now, and Steele says its members are proud of the work they’ve accomplished so far. Local teachers have implemented the “Take 10” program to incorporate short bursts of activity into the school day.

Their work is funded by a two-year, $52,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health care issues. The group is applying for additional funding to continue their work.

“(The childhood obesity rate) is really continuing to trend upward, despite a lot of efforts and initiatives across the state and country,” he told The State Journal this morning.

“It still comes down to people need to take responsibility for themselves and their children and find ways to eat healthier and exercise more.”

The bottom line is that kids are consuming more calories than they’re burning every day, Steele says, often in the form of high-calorie, unhealthy foods.

Schools can help, he says, by teaching kids how to choose healthy foods and serving healthier meals in the lunch line.
“The battle goes on, but so much of it is awareness, and I really think the awareness needs to come from the kids to the parents,” he said.

Despite greater awareness of the obesity epidemic, the numbers still continue to rise. Steele says that’s a product of American lifestyles.

“It’s probably just the way our society has evolved over the last 40 years,” he said. “We are way too dependent on cars. We need to have initiatives in place to make our cities more walkable, so people can run errands and kids can safely walk to school or ride their bike.”

The obesity epidemic continues to be most dramatic in the South, which includes nine of the 10 states with the highest adult obesity rates.

States in the Northeast and West tend to have lower rates. Mississippi maintained the highest adult obesity rate for the seventh year in a row, and Colorado has the lowest obesity rate and is the only state with a rate under 20 percent.

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