New Jersey ranked 22nd in nation for rate of childhood obesity

Fast food and unhealthy eating concept. (ShutterStock)

Fast food and unhealthy eating concept. (ShutterStock)

This article originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

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More than 124,000 tweens and teens in New Jersey are obese, according to a new report that finds the Garden State is in the middle of the pack nationwide when it comes to obesity rates for this age group.

Findings released today by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation show that in New Jersey, 15% in this age group are obese, which means the state has the 22nd highest rate nationwide. The obesity rate ranged from 25.4 % for youngsters in Mississippi to 8.7% in Utah; in Pennsylvania it was 17.4%; Delaware, 15.1% and New York, 14.4%.

According to the report, 15.3% of Americans between the ages of 10 and 17 — some 4.8 million — are clinically obese, a diagnosis that puts them at significantly higher risk for illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. The research is based on federal data from 2018, compiled from national surveys that assessed body mass index, a ratio of height to weight, for youth nationwide. (RWJF also provides financial support to NJ Spotlight.)

The good news is youth obesity rates appear to have leveled off in recent years and may be starting to decline, the New Jersey-based foundation noted, and programs to encourage healthy eating and active lifestyles are taking root around the country. The report includes a list of policy recommendations, largely related to federal nutrition programs, which researchers said could be used to build on this success.

But the bad news is that, after ramping up steadily over the past two decades, obesity rates are still too high — and not just in this age group. The report said that in New Jersey, 15.3% of children ages 2 to 4 years were obese, as were 25.7% of adults, although that represents the fourth-lowest adult rate in the nation. Experts stress the importance of addressing obesity early, as youngsters with extra weight are far more likely to struggle with obesity down the road.

Disparities related to race, income

The report also raised concerns about disparities in obesity rates related to race and income, gaps that have persisted for years. Nationwide, black and Hispanic youth (with obesity rates of 22.2% and 19%, respectively) were essentially at least twice as likely to be obese as white (11.8%) and Asian (7.3%) kids in this age group. A similar pattern held true for children in families below the federal poverty level, who had a 21.9% obesity rate versus those growing up with four or more times that income, among whom the obesity rate was 9.4%.

“These new data show that this challenge touches the lives of far too many children in this country, and that Black and Hispanic youth are still at greater risk than their White and Asian peers,” said Dr. Richard Besser, RWJF’s president, and CEO. The foundation said it has committed more than $1 billion to programs designed to help children grow up at a healthy weight and pledged to continue working with federal, state and local levels to make changes.

There has been a growing focus among policy experts on the dangers associated with obesity — which can have dramatic impacts on health and quality of life — and also on the broader social conditions that can influence what we eat, how we exercise, our mental health, and other factors that impact healthy weight. Residents in communities that lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables and safe places to walk and play are more likely to be impacted by obesity, as well as suffering from stress associated with poverty, racism or violence.

“These differences by race, ethnicity, and geography did not happen by chance,” Besser said. “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.”

Sugary drinks every day

In September, RWJF and a handful of health-related professional organizations released the first national guidelines on healthy beverages for young children, an effort to help parents and caregivers easily identify the most nutritious options — and avoid sugar-sweetened juices and sodas, which are the primary source of sugar for kids. Some six in 10 youngsters down at least one sugary drink daily, the report noted.

In New Jersey, government officials, health care organizations and local groups have teamed up in dozens of communities to expand access to healthy food and active living. The state Department of Health partners with nonprofits to increase choices in fresh fruit and vegetables at corner stores and improve exercise options in low-income neighborhoods around the state.

Health care systems in Camden, Newark and Trenton have formed alliances with faith-based organizations and other community groups to plant gardens and establish farmer’s markets, expand after-school programs, and organize outdoor exercise classes and healthy cooking demonstrations. The Nicholson Foundation, which is focused on underserved communities, launched an initiative to reduce consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks.

This new report underscores the important role federal nutrition programs play in addressing childhood obesity and health, especially the school lunch program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for families or SNAP — generally known as “food stamps” — and the Women, Infants, and Children program. According to the foundation, nearly one-third of kids under age 4 are fed through SNAP and half the nation’s children benefit from WIC, which provides help through their fifth birthday.

Standards for school lunches

The foundation urged the Trump administration to ensure these programs meet expert nutrition guidelines and suggested it rescind proposed changes to SNAP that could leave millions of participants hungry. The report also recommends the federal government return to its previous standards for school lunches, which emphasized whole grains, low sodium and low fat — guidelines that became more lenient in 2018.

The foundation also urged Trump officials to ensure the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has adequate resources to provide grants to help all states address obesity. In 2019, the centers distributed nearly $60 million nationwide through a program designed to increase breastfeeding — another benefit to a healthy weight in children — expand access to healthy food, and improve opportunities for physical exercise in schools, child-care centers, and other community sites.

“The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is committed to reducing the rates of childhood obesity across the nation,” Besser said. “We know it won’t be easy, or quick. We know it will require policy changes at every level of government, and we’re working alongside others to implement shifts that will make it easier for kids and their families to be healthy.”

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