Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Obesity remains priority for First State, as rate begins to stabilize

via Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

New data shows Delaware's obesity rate dropped off slightly in 2014 -- but the First State still has the highest obesity rate in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, at 30.7 percent of all adults.


The report out earlier this week from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows a point-four percent drop from Delaware's obesity rate in 2013. That puts Delaware 17th highest in the nation for adult obesity for 2014, compared to 13th in 2013. That year, the state saw a four-percent spike in its obesity rate.

Dr. Karyl Rattay directs Delaware's Division of Public Health. She says the latest data suggests obesity may be stabilizing in Delaware….

"However, if you look at overweight plus obesity, we have about two-thirds of Delawareans who have an unhealthy weight," Rattay says. "It puts a lot of Delawareans at risk for very serious health consequences."

A closer look at the data shows about 28 percent of white Delawareans are obese, along with 37 percent of African-Americans and nearly 32 percent of Latinos.

And in Delaware, more older people are obese than in the state with the highest rate nationwide -- that's Arkansas, at nearly 36 percent. There, mostly people aged 41-64 are obese -- about 42 percent of them. And 29 percent of people 65 and older are considered obese too.

"In many ways, we're comparable to other states. So we don't have a great answer to why are are not quite as physically active or why we're not eating as healthy."

  In Delaware, that proportion is higher. About 36 percent of adults aged 41-64 are obese in the First State, and more than 30 percent of seniors.

Rattay says age, disability and poverty are big drivers of obesity everywhere, and Delaware is no different.

"Lower income individuals often have less access to healthy foods and safe places to be physically active," she says. "And interestingly -- associated with poverty and disabilities as well, you see a lot of stress, and stress is related to obesity as well."

Rattay says the state has made a big push toward combating some of those factors in recent years -- targeting specific areas, like promoting walking and biking and trying to cut back the availability of sugary beverages.

Still, Delaware is number one in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast states for obesity. Rattay says it's not too clear why that is.

"In many ways, we're comparable to other states," she says. "So we don't have a great answer to why are are not quite as physically active or why we're not eating as healthy or why we have a higher prevalence of some of these diseases."

Delaware is 15th in the nation for diabetes, at just over 11 percent of all adults. Data also shows the First State is 16th in the nation for physical inactivity, and 10th for adult hypertension. And Rattay says cancer rates are higher here too.

"All of those things do suggest that Delaware's a little bit behind some of our other states," she says. "We've got to make changes to ensure people can make healthy choices and really to change the culture so people are more automatically incorporating healthy changes into their lives."

She says Gov. Jack Markell's trails initiative has been a big part of that. And in the next couple of months, she says they'll launch the Motivate the First State campaign. It'll let people earn points that go to fund local charities when they exercise. But she says Delaware's more urban areas -- especially Wilmington -- are sometimes tougher to reach with these statewide initiatives.

"We've got to make changes to ensure people can make healthy choices, and really to change the culture."

"The violence in the community, or the concerns about the violence, really do impact whether people are going to be physically active," Rattay says. "So working with the communities where they are -- we've seen some great success with working with faith-based groups."

That includes encouraging things like walking clubs. Rattay says the more people get out in a community, the more a community can heal on a number of levels.

But she also notes that obesity is part of a cycle that begins before birth -- socioeconomically and health-wise. She says the state has worked to promote breastfeeding, which can combat obesity and other issues down the line. As kids grow up, she says healthy foods, exercise and influences are also important.

In Delaware, childhood obesity tends to mirror adult obesity. That's due in part to parental perception, says Nemours Foundation population health manager Robin Brennan.

"They may not perceive their child accurately," she says. "And some of that may stem from their own behavior patterns and the stigma that's involved with that."

She says Delaware has made great strides in promoting healthy foods and play in schools and elsewhere outside the house. But:

"It's very difficult to penetrate that home environment," Brennan says. "So we could be doing incredible work with our childcare centers, but the child comes back to not having access to healthy food, not being able to access safe environments for physical activity, not having an encouraged family atmosphere -- that's where there can be limitations in the great work that's been done."

Nemours' last survey of childhood obesity in Delaware, in 2012, showed stagnant rates with a few surprises, says Brennan. Obesity for black kids dropped off, while the rate for white kids was on the rise. Nemours' latest data is due out in the coming months.

"We're just now beginning to deal with the many increased costs associated with overweight and obesity. This is going to get worse even if we stay stable."

Still, across the country, the numbers are striking -- the lowest obesity rate in the nation, in Colorado, is more than 20 percent -- higher than the highest rate in the country 20 years ago. But Dr. Rattay says she's hopeful those rates will soon start to go back down.

"If it doesn't, it's gonna bankrupt us," she says. "We're just now beginning to deal with the many increased costs associated with overweight and obesity. This is going to get worse even if we stay stable."

The new data says obesity is costing the country as much as around $200 billion a year. But it also says investing about $10 per person in community-based health promotion programs could shave $16 billion a year off that number.

"So I am hopeful we can get back to where we were in the '90s, but it really has to be a priority," Rattay says.


It has been for her under Gov. Markell's leadership. She's hopeful his successor next year will take the same approach.