A new study shows one in six Iowa children ages 10 to 17 are obese —and the numbers are far more worrisome for racial minorities and low-income residents.
The report, publicly released today by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, showed more than 50,000 Iowa children in that age range are obese. The state’s 16.4% obesity rate for those ages is the 14th highest in the country.
Wisconsin and Illinois both have a childhood obesity rate of 14.2%, tied for the 28th- highest in the nation.
The nationwide average is 15.3%.
Jeff Kindrai, director and health officer for the Grant County (Wis.) Health Department, said high obesity rates in kids can result in significant short- and long-term problems.
“It can lead to lifelong issues for these children,” he said. “It puts them at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancers as they get older.”
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation bills itself as the nation’s largest philanthropic organization dedicated solely to health. Founded in 1972, the foundation supports research and programs that target pressing health issues.
The study released today discovered that incidences of obesity were far higher in certain segments of the population.
Black and Hispanic youth nationwide have obesity rates of 22.2% and 19%, respectively. White youth had an obesity rate of 11.8%, while Asian children had a rate of only 7.3%.
Meanwhile, 21.9% of children in households earning less than the federal poverty level were obese.
Kindrai is not surprised that those struggling financially also face health issues.
He noted that healthy foods — such as fruits and vegetables — are often pricier than their processed counterparts.
Moreover, lower socioeconomic classes might have fewer opportunities for exercise. In some cases, low-income families might be farther from local parks; in others, parents might deem their neighborhood too dangerous to let their kids play outside.
While the numbers might be hard to stomach, Kindrai thinks shining a light on childhood obesity is worthwhile.
“I am hopeful that we will consider health more in our policies,” he said. “Whether it is the placement of parks, or opportunities for recreation, or creating sidewalks so children can safely walk to more places. We can develop an infrastructure that supports physical activity.”
EDUCATION IS KEY
Brittany Demezier serves as the food systems program coordinator for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach of Dubuque County.
She believes education is vital to improving health.
“I think we are definitely moving in a positive direction,” she said. “Both private and public schools have been really receptive to educating students about healthy products and local products.”
Demezier believes an emphasis on eating local foods can support healthier lifestyles.
“An apple from Washington and an apple from Dubuque are probably going to have the same amount of calories,” she said. “But that apple from Dubuque is going to be much fresher and taste better. That will encourage people to come back for more (of that healthy food).”
Kindrai noted that the news on childhood obesity isn’t all bad.
A previous study conducted by the foundation utilized data from 2016 and 2017 and determined that 17.7% of Iowa children were obese.
Wisconsin and Illinois had childhood obesity rates of 14.3% and 16.2%, respectively, in the previous study.
In all three states, the obesity rate was lower in the study released today.
“These rates were trending upward in the past, and now we are seeing them level off,” Kindrai said. “Hopefully, the attention to this issue is initiating enough change to see improvement.”
Sometimes the solutions can be simpler than one might think.
Kindrai noted that about 70% of Grant County adults are either overweight or obese. By improving their own habits, adults can model better behavior for kids.
“Eating a healthy meal together as a family can really be helpful,” he said. “It is important to lead by example.”