Kentucky has the third highest rate of youth obesity in the nation. According to data released Thursday, 93,600 young people ages 10 to 17 have obesity, a rate of 20.8%.
The obesity rate in Kentucky is significantly higher than the national rate. The data come from the 2017 and 2018 National Survey of Children's Health (NSCH), 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, or 15.3%, have obesity.
"It's something to be concerned about," Ben Chandler, CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said. "If you are obese at young age, you are much more likely to be obese as (an) adult. It doesn't bode well for our future health. Kentucky has a high rate of diabetes, and that's directly related to obesity."
Mississippi had the highest overall youth obesity rate at 25.4%, and Utah had the lowest at 8.7%. Three states had obesity rates statistically significantly higher than the national rate in 2017-18: Mississippi, West Virginia (20.9%) and Kentucky (20.8%), according to the report.
The national obesity rate for youth, 15.3%, is lower than the previous years rate of 16.1%, however, the difference is not statistically significant, the report notes.
Racial and ethnic disparities persist as black and Hispanic youth had obesity rates (22.2% and 19.0%, respectively), that were significantly higher than white youth, 11.8%, or Asian youth, 7.3%.
There are also disparities by income level: 21.9% of youth in households making less than the federal poverty level had obesity, significantly more than the 9.4% of youth in households making at least 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
"These differences by race, ethnicity and geography did not happen by chance," said Richard Besser, MD, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in a release. "They are a result of discriminatory policies and systems that have been in place for decades. However, we have the power to change these outcomes and make our nation a more equitable society. The more we understand the barriers to good health, the more we can do to address them."
Chandler added poverty is a strong indicator of health in Kentucky as the state is relatively poor. He said people in poorer parts of the state often lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. He noted many live in food deserts where grocery stores are too far away or cost is too high.
"This has been a problem for Kentucky for many years," Chandler said. "There's nothing really new and confirms Kentucky is in bad shape with obesity levels. That's harbinger of things to come where health is concerned. We've got to get our young people healthier."
Obesity can put young people at greater risk for several other diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. Research also shows the importance of obesity prevention efforts early in life: One study found that 5 year olds who were overweight were four times as likely to have obesity by age 14 as healthy weight children.
The RWJF's report includes several policy recommendations to help ensure more children in the U.S. have consistent access to healthy foods from the earliest days of life in order to help them grow up at a healthy weight.
One of the recommendations is state policymakers should allow cities and counties the flexibility to regulate, tax or otherwise enact strong legislation related to children's health and healthy communities.
Chandler agreed and said cities in Kentucky are pre-empted from enacting local nutrition policies. He also said there needs to be policy changes on getting the state's youth more active.
"I think PE and recess are things we should look at (in) K-12 in Kentucky and certainly more requirements for physical activity in early childhood," he said.
Chandler added groups across the state are working together as the Child Health Coalition to find ways to get policies enacted.
The full release can be found at stateofchildhoodobesity.org.
Jonathan Greene is the editor of The Register; follow him on Twitter @jgreeneRR.