For over two decades the epidemic of obesity has been a persistent threat to public health. In 1990, Georgia’s obesity rate stood at less than 15 percent. By 2000 the figure rose to over 20 percent; by 2005, to near 25 percent, and by 2010, to 28 percent. By 2014, more than 30 percent of the adult population was obese. A report released last week by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranked Georgia as the 19th most obese state in the nation.
Efforts to address obesity have focused in large part on our most vulnerable citizens: our children. For the past decade, leaders at every level have begun following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Institute of Medicine on strategies to prevent obesity. This has included initiatives to increase healthy eating and physical activity, reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, improve access to healthy foods, create safe routes to school and increase health care providers’ screening for weight status.
Results are beginning to emerge, and the news is promising. Nationally, between 2000 and 2010, the average daily energy intake decreased by 158 calories for boys and by 76 calories for girls. The proportion of children and adolescents consuming sugar-sweetened beverages decreased from 80 percent to 67 percent between 2001 and 2010.
Further, after decades of steady increases, the obesity rate among children appears to have plateaued and has even declined in a few states and localities. Georgia has been identified as one of 18 states measuring obesity declines among preschool children from low-income families.
Despite this progress, the obesity rate remains unacceptably high. In Georgia, 35 percent of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, with negative health, academic and psycho-social implications. Over 65 percent of adults in the state are overweight or obese. The full health and economic toll remains to be seen.
In Georgia, cases of adult onset diabetes are projected to increase from approximately 750,000 cases in 2010 to over 1.1 million cases by 2030. Heart disease is projected to increase from 465,000 cases to more than 2.2 million cases by 2030. The medical expenses attributable to obesity in this state are projected to reach $10 billion by 2018. These are daunting implications that should be a catalyst for further action.
Across the nation, the states and communities that have been most successful in halting and reversing childhood obesity have implemented comprehensive, multi-component campaigns that included a focus on diet and physical activity. In Georgia, an expanded effort incorporating school nutrition standards, social marketing and informational approaches promoting healthy behaviors, as well as community-clinical partnerships, are needed to build on emerging progress.
The same leadership, cooperation and partnership that led to the adoption of the SHAPE Act in 2009 and the subsequent Georgia SHAPE Initiative is now needed to define and implement a more far-reaching, evidence-based, statewide obesity prevention campaign that reaches all citizens, young and old. Now is the time to redouble our efforts and ensure a bright, healthy future for our state.
Rodney Lyn is associate professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University.