W.Va. second in the nation in youth obesity

WHEELING — West Virginia has the nation’s second highest rate of youth obesity, while Ohio weighs in at 10th in the country, according to new data.

The Mountain State’s youth obesity rate of 20.9 percent and the Buckeye State’s rate of 17.1 percent exceed the nationwide rate of 15.3 percent. A total of 19 states have rates that are higher than the national average.

This information is contained in a report released Thursday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The data come from the 2017 and 2018 National Survey of Children’s Health, along with analysis conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau.

Nationwide, 4.8 million young people ages 10 to 17 have obesity. According to the new data, 33,900 West Virginia youth in this age range and 195,400 young people in Ohio are obese.

“I think that is a pretty fair representation, unfortunately,” said Dr. Claire Paxton, who is a pediatrician at Wheeling Hospital.

“We do see obesity pretty commonly in our clinic. I think everyone does,” she said, referring to patients treated by area pediatricians.

Noting that obesity sometimes correlates to lower socio-economic status, she said, “Our poverty rate here in West Virginia is a good bit higher than the national average. That certainly doesn’t help things if people don’t have access to healthy fruits and vegetables, which can be expensive. The best thing they can afford are processed foods, which are not great for the kids or anyone.”

Citing another problem in West Virginia, Paxton said, “There are some places in the state where they have to drive over an hour to get to a grocery store to get fresh fruits and vegetables, which makes things challenging.”

An approach involving the whole family offers the best way to tackle youth obesity because children model parents’ behavior. Youth are more likely to have a healthy weight if their parents are eating and exercising the way they should.

The pediatrician suggested that parents “try to make lifestyle changes as a family, encourage exercise, take a family walk for a few minutes.”

Parents also should “monitor what kind of foods come into the house” and limit sugary drinks and snacks.

“By limiting high-calorie stuff coming in the house, then kids don’t have as much access to those foods,” she said.

Care, though, should be taken in delivering messages about weight loss to pre-teens and teens who might be susceptible to eating disorders. In such cases, Paxton said, “We emphasize not so much to reach a specific number, but to be healthy in general.”

In fast-paced modern life, people may select foods that are quick and convenient, but ultimately unhealthy. To avoid that hazard, she said, “It’s about scheduling time to make healthy eating and exercise a priority just like everything else.”

The foundation’s report indicates obesity affects roughly one in seven youth nationwide.

“This rate has remained relatively steady over the years,” said Jamie Bussel of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

However, she said ” deep disparities” can be seen among black and Hispanic youth. In addition, youth from lower-income families are at greater risk than children from more affluent households.

This first-ever report — titled “State of Childhood Obesity: Helping All Children Grow Up Healthy” — includes data on national and state childhood obesity rates, policies that can help address the epidemic and stories about local communities taking action.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation advocates consistent access to healthy foods.

“It’s much more cost-effective and simpler to address in the early years than later on,” Bussel said.

The foundation has dedicated more than $1 billion over the past decade to reduce rates of childhood obesity and address disparities that exist across the country.

“The choices that people, families and children make, depend upon the choices that they have,” she said.

At the foundation, “we are continuing to be on this mission. We’re really optimistic that we’re on the right path,” Bussel said.

Mississippi has the highest overall youth obesity rate, 25.4 percent. Six states have obesity rates statistically significantly lower than the national rate: Utah, 8.7 percent; Minnesota, 9.4 percent; Alaska, 9.9 percent; Colorado, 10.7 percent; Montana, 10.8 percent, and Washington, 11.0 percent.

In states with more positive data, leaders are deploying a multitude of strategies, such as providing access to affordable, healthy food and creating safe places for children and families to be active on a daily basis, she said. For example, officials in San Antonio, Texas, are focused on repairing sidewalks and building bike paths to encourage outdoor exercise.

“Schools need to be supporting activity during the day,” Bussel added. “The physical activity part has real profound impact and helps with our mental health as well.”

Obesity puts young people at greater risk for many health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, asthma and cancer, she said.