Tom Smart, Deseret News
People exercise at Liberty Park on Wednesday. Residents of Utah have one of the lowest obesity rates in the country.
Evidence that rates of obesity among adults and children have stabilized for the first time in 30 years is clearly one of the most important public health news stories of the year. If the new data represents a tipping point at which we will see obesity rates start to decline, then it becomes one of the most important stories in a generation.
It would mark the beginning of the conquest of what may be described without exaggeration as the most vexing public health problem in America. Obesity rates had been climbing at a pace that would eventually, and significantly, reduce average life expectancy. Until now, the generation of kids and young adults born since the turn of the century was on the way to becoming the first generation in American history that would live shorter lives than their parents.
While the number of people considered chronically overweight has increased nearly every year since the 1990s, the rate of increase stopped in 2013, according to public health data compiled in a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for American Health. That is important news, but not entirely worthy of celebration. The data still shows obesity is far too common. In 41 states, at least 25 percent of the adult population is considered obese. That compares to less than 15 percent in 1980.
The reasons for the dramatic rise over that period are many and varied. While income and educational levels are determinants, central to the trend are cultural influences and lifestyle habits. As such, the new statistics would suggest a course reversal on those influences, indicating that public awareness campaigns on the problem are kicking in, particularly when it comes to children, and particularly in Utah.
The Foundation's report shows that Utah has the seventh lowest overall obesity rate in the nation, and has the lowest rate of obesity among children ages 10-17. Those are numbers that are worth celebrating, but again, with the caveat that problems associated with being overweight are still affecting too many people. Even with the lowest rate of child obesity, nearly 12 percent of Utah kids remain at risk for increased rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart problems.
At a time when advances in medicine are offering new and effective methods of treating illnesses like cancer and heart disease, it is unfortunate that lifespans may still be cut short simply because of sedentary lifestyles and bad dietary habits. In recent years, public health agencies have stepped up efforts to warn of the damaging impact of long-term obesity. If the arrest in the rate of affliction is a result of that, then there is good reason to continue to push such campaigns.