The State(s) of Obesity

There are big differences between states, but this really is a national epidemic.

State of Obesity, a joint project of the Trust for America’s Future and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has released a fascinating report about adult obesity.  There are large national disparities.  The obesity rate is over 35% in West Virginia and Mississippi, but only 21% in Colorado. Despite these disparities, obesity rates have grown everywhere since 1990, just about doubling in most places.  In 2000, only one state was above 25%, now it’s 42%.

In most places, the trend line shows a fairly steady increase, but there are some interesting deviations.  A number of places have more or less leveled off (though some at high levels): Alaska since 2006, California since 2003, D.C. since 2000, Minnesota since 2003, North Carolina since 2009.  Some of these may be statistical blips; others may reflect demographic shifts.  To the extent that any of the changes can be traced to lifestyle or policy shifts, however, they might have lessons for others. There are some indications that adult obesity rates are leveling off nationally, and childhood obesity rates have been level for a decade.  But the challenge will be to reduce the rates.

Demographic factors are clearly important too. The obesity rate is higher for Latinos and African Americans than for whites, while Asians have much lower rates. Sex makes a small difference among Latinos and White but has a dramatic impact among African Americans, among whom of 37% men but 56% of women are obese.  Low income and lack of education are also risk factors.  The result is that some communities are much more heavily impacted than others.  It’s unfortunate that organizations like the NAACP that represent these communities have sometimes been on the forefront of opposition to efforts to reduce obesity, such as restrictions on high-sugar beverages.

Interest in the subject of food law is growing in law schools.  But obesity issues also implicate environmental law, particularly in terms of measures to get people out of their cars.  Creating more walkable neighborhoods with access to public transit is good for the environment, but also good for public health.  Meanwhile, healthier diets could help reduce the environmental footprint of American agriculture.  Thus, the obesity issue does have an environmental dimension.


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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “The State(s) of Obesity”

  1. Obesity is a problem that seems to be trending in the right direction, but still needs to be addressed. I wrote about a cost-benefit analysis of sugary drink regulation in New York City (because of the now-defunct attempt by the City to impose restrictions on the size of sugary drinks sold in the City), and found that the benefits are likely an order of magnitude or so higher than the costs ( A big part of the problem of obesity is the challenge in engaging leadership among those who would be expected to champion reform; despite the fact that the obesity problem in New York City is significantly greater in African-American communities, the New York chapter of the NAACP joined suit in overturning the regulation, on the grounds that people do not need this paternalistic public health measure, and that it interferes with their “liberty of palate.”

  2. It is also interesting to look at how trade rules affect obesity rates. High-input high-yield agriculture and long-distance transport increase the availability and affordability of refined carbohydrates (wheat, rice, sugar) and edible oils (World Health Organization, 2002). While making greater numbers of the population secure in terms of energy, modern food systems also underpin the nutrition transition with growing over-comsumption and associated chronic diseases. So we see obesity rates growing in Mexico, in Brazil, in China. We are exporting a food system that doesn’t work for the US to others.

  3. The environmental impacts are far reaching and in ways that are not initially apparent. In hindsight, of course, they make perfect sense. For example, in 2000 airlines spent approximately $275 million extra on fuel due to obese passengers. See Stahl, Jason. “20 Things You Didn’t Know about… Obesity”. Discover Magazine. 24 July 2006. Web. 15 Sept. 2013.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more