A new report has found that about one in three Louisiana residents is obese, making it one of 12 states with an obesity rate over 35%.
The report, compiled by the non-profit Trust For America’s Health using new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments, found that Louisiana ranks 9th in the nation for obese adults at 35.9%. The rates ranged from a low of 23.8 percent in Colorado and the District of Columbia, to a high of 40.8 percent in Mississippi.
In the report, obesity is defined as unhealthy distribution of body fat measured by a calculation called body mass index, or BMI. A BMI over 25 is considered overweight; over 30 is considered obese.
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The obesity rate in Louisiana dropped almost a percentage point from the year before, when the state ranked No. 4. But Rhea Farberman, TFAH’s director of strategic communications and policy research, said the trend across the board over the last two decades is “up, up, up.”
“There is no question obesity is on the rise,” said Farberman. “It’s startling, especially when you consider links between obesity, heart disease, diabetes and now COVID-19.”
In 2003, the first year of data reported by the group, the percentage of obese adults in Louisiana was 24.8%; in 2010, it was 31.2%. In 1985, no state had an obesity rate higher than 15%.
Several recent studies have drawn links between obesity and the severity of the coronavirus.
An analysis of thousands of patients published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that severe obesity, defined as a BMI over 40, was associated with a three-times greater risk of dying than people of normal weight. That was true even when study authors adjusted for diseases associated with obesity such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
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In a large analysis of many studies with data from almost 400,000 patients, research published in Obesity Reviews found that people with obesity and COVID-19 were 113% more likely to be hospitalized, 74% more likely to need intensive care and 48% more likely to die than people of healthy weight.
Because the TFAH report relied on data self-reported by individuals, it is likely an inaccurate representation of obesity in the U.S. The real number, according to researchers, may be 10% higher.
“People tend to overestimate their height and underestimate their weight,” wrote study authors.
Another metric included in the report based on height and weight reported by physicians suggested the national level of obesity is 42.4%, higher than any self-reported averages from states.
Among children, Louisiana has one of the highest rates of obesity, ranking 3rd at 20.8% for kids between the ages of 10 and 17.
There are a number of reasons the obesity rate across the U.S. has escalated so much in recent decades.
Humans are more sedentary than they have been in the past because of more screentime during both work and leisure, said Farberman.
The report also highlights food insecurity as a major factor, particularly in states with a lower average income such as Louisiana.
“It’s about not having enough to eat, but also about having not enough of the right foods or healthful foods that someone needs to maintain a healthy body weight,” said Candice Myers, director of the Social Determinants and Health Disparities Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. She was not involved in the TFAS analysis.
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Food insecurity has doubled over the last 15 years, according to research led by Myers published in the journal JAMA Network Open. In Louisiana, about one in 6 households reported that they are worried they could run out of food, could not buy a balanced meal, skip meals or feel hungry. She points to disparities in social factors like income and education as the cause.
“I think it’s issues related to widening inequality trickling its way into health metrics,” said Myers.
Food insecurity is closely tied to obesity. Food-insecure adults have a 32 percent greater chance of being obese, according to some studies. It is also linked to higher rates of depression, diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol, as well as generally being in poor or fair health are higher.
In children, being food insecure is associated with higher odds of having asthma, anemia and being in fair or poor health, and it is associated with a higher risk of cognitive issues, aggression, anxiety, depression, behavior problems, depression, suicide and hospitalization.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased financial troubles for many, meaning food insecurity rates will rise, experts said. Even as community groups rush to fill communal fridges set up around New Orleans and the state offered food-assistance benefits to those affected by recent flooding, the report predicted the rate of insecurity would increase by 35% as a result of the pandemic.
Emily Woodruff covers public health for The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate as a Report For America corps member.