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Thursday, October 10, 2019 1:00 am

State 13th in youth obesity

16.6% of children affected; US average 15.3%

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

At a glance

The states with the five highest and five lowest rates of obesity among youth ages 10 to 17, based on data collected in 2017 and 2018, were:

HIGHEST

1. Mississippi 25.4%

2. West Virginia 20.9%

3. (tie) Kentucky 20.8%

3. (tie) Louisiana 20.8%

5. Michigan 18.9%

LOWEST

46. Montana 10.8%

47. Colorado 10.7%

48. Alaska 9.9%

49. Minnesota 9.4%

50. Utah 8.7%

Source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Indiana ranked 13th nationwide last year in youth obesity with a rate of 16.6%, more than one full percentage point higher than the national rate of 15.3%, according to a study being released today.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit that works to improve health and health care, for the first time aggregated results of several state and national childhood obesity reports. The data are from 2017 and 2018.

Dr. Richard Besser, the foundation's president and CEO, said his organization is committed to reducing childhood obesity, which increases risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

“These new data show that this challenge touches the lives of far too many children in this country, and that black and Hispanic youth are still at greater risk than their white and Asian peers,” he said in a statement.

The study found 25.8% of Hispanic youth and 22.0% of black youth are obese. But the percentages fall to 14.1% for white and 11.0% for Asian youth.

Three of Indiana's four neighboring states have higher youth obesity rates than the Hoosier State. Kentucky was tied for third place nationwide with 20.8%. Michigan was fifth with 18.9%. Ohio was 10th with 17.1% and Illinois was tied for 27th place with 14.2%.

Indiana's adult obesity rate is more than double the youth rate at 34.1%.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's release includes several recommendations meant to improve children's health, including maintaining current funding levels for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and reverting to healthier school lunch nutrition guidelines adopted under the Obama administration by overturned by the Trump administration.

The foundation also advocates for allowing cities more autonomy in passing legislation related to children's health and healthy communities. Some state or federal laws restrict what communities can do.

The best way to address the situation, however, is to address community issues, Besser said in his introduction to the foundation's report.

“Poverty. Unstable and unsafe housing. Schools that don't meet children's needs. Neighborhoods that seldom offer families opportunities to thrive. These are all conditions that influence health,” he wrote.

Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County's health commissioner, compared the foundation's findings with a study conducted by the Fairbanks School of Public Health and found them to be consistent.

“These are very challenging times for everyone, especially children, as we become more sedentary and consume more calories,” she said in a statement. “In the Fairbanks report, they identify strategies that might work – but in a culture that just consumes more and more – implementing strategies such as 'sugar taxes' and more physical education in the schools are not always popular even with the adults!”

Among the programs highlighted by the report as success stories are Columbus, Ohio's Water First for Thirst campaign, which resulted in all vending machines in city schools selling only water. Various events and public buildings also removed sugary drinks from their offerings.

Washington state has adopted a program that encourages childcare centers to serve healthy meals and snacks to preschoolers.

sslater@jg.net