While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Arkansas the most obese state in the nation in 2014, the state’s weight epidemic is now leveling off, and health officials hope obesity rates will start to go down.
A recent study published in the Journal of American Medicine shows some hope for stemming the problem. Researchers found a slight decline in obesity among low-income children in the nationwide Women, Infants and Children supplemental food program.
Christy Sellers with the Arkansas Department of Health says one big reason for the improvement could be a change in 2009 that allowed program recipients to buy healthier foods.
“So now they actually receive fresh fruits and vegetables so that’s a little bit different. The milks went from where whole milk was issued on some basis to now everything is a low fat milk, so it’s either two percent or lower,” she said.
The program serves about 85,000 Arkansans a month. Sellers says many can’t afford healthy food otherwise.
“What we hear anecdotally from a lot of our families [is] in order to make those dollars stretch further that, you know, some of their food choice may not be the healthiest because some of our healthier foods are more expensive.”
Dr. Liping Pan is an Epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control who helped conduct the study. She says while the results are hopeful, the problem of childhood obesity is still great.
“Although these modest declines are encouraging, too many children are still struggling with obesity and severe obesity, so obesity is still a serious public health concern,” said Pan.
State health department data shows that by age five, about 32 percent of Arkansas kids in the program are overweight or obese because of a range of genetic, dietary and lifestyle factors.
Dr. Namvar Zohoori also works at the state’s Department of Health. He says obesity is tied to many other health issues like diabetes and cancer.
“Obesity is the number one risk factor for a number of chronic diseases. Hypertension, high blood pressure, is very prevalent in Arkansas. About 39 percent of Arkansans have hypertension and that puts us at fourth in the nation,” he said.
Zohoori says the department is working to raise awareness in the state about the benefits of breastfeeding, which is more nutritious than formula, and more.
“We promoted the use of gardens…the development of community gardens, the development of farmers markets, many of the communities that we are working with are starting to develop walking trails and biking trails so that there’s better opportunity for the community to exercise and be physically active,” said Zahoori.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports that nearly 36 percent of Arkansans in the general population are obese which is about double the rate twenty years ago.