Often the result of poor nutrition and misinformation, obesity brings with it a host of debilitating health problems and a hefty economic price tag. Virginia is committed to promoting a healthy lifestyle, starting in childhood, to help citizens avoid obesity and live long, productive lives.
Why is This Important?
A healthy community is one in which individuals adopt healthy behaviors such as eating nutritious foods and being physically active, both of which can prevent or control the devastating effects of obesity. Obesity often results in lost workdays, lower productivity, and negative health outcomes, including diabetes and depression; it also strains private and government health care programs.
How is Virginia Doing?
Consistent with trends nationwide, obesity rates in Virginia have generally been steadily rising for the last decade and more. Although the state's obesity rate declined two percentage points from 2011-2013, it rose again by nearly that same amount in 2014, to 28.5 percent -- ranking the state 20th nationally.
Virginia's obesity rate was lower than its peer states: Maryland (29.6%), North Carolina (29.7%), and Tennessee (31.2%). Colorado, which has led the nation in lowest obesity rates since 2000, again led in 2014 with 21.3 percent -- but even this is higher than their 2012 rate of 20.5 percent. The national average was 29.6 percent.
Within Virginia, obesity rates also rose in most regions in 2014, although many had seen their rates decline at least once across 2011-2013. The Eastern region had the highest obesity rate at 39.2 percent in 2014, followed by the Southside (36.9%), Valley (32.7%), and Southside (32.5%) regions. The Northern region had the lowest rate of obesity at 21.2 percent and was the only region with a rate below the statewide average.
The 2011 National Survey of Children's Health found that just under 30 percent (29.8%) of Virginia's 10-to-17-year-olds were overweight or obese, a decrease since 2007 of 1.2 percentage points. This figure puts Virginia below the national average of 31.3 percent and ranks the state 23rd highest in the country for percentage of overweight or obese children. Virginia's rate was lower than North Carolina (31.4%), Maryland (31.6%), and Tennessee (34.1%). Utah was again lowest in the U.S. at 22.1 percent. Of the states tracked here, only Maryland showed an increase in percentage of overweight or obese children in 2011 compared with the previous 2007 results.
Research and Response
Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which reauthorized federal child nutrition programs such as National School Lunch and National School Breakfast, eased and expanded access, strengthened and updated nutritional standards, and initiated efforts to bring fresh, local produce into school-provided meals. A related initiative, Smart Snacks in School, was launched in 2013 to set nutritional standards in public school foods sold a la carte, for fundraisers, and in vending machines.
Like many states, Virginia's efforts to embrace these updated standards and best practices for preventing obesity are still a work in progress. According to various sources, the Commonwealth has a vigorous Farm-to-School program and has implemented several of the recommended policies to encourage healthy eating and physical activity.
F as in FAT. An August 2013 report published by the Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation warns that -- if current efforts to alter the average American's diet and exercise habits are not maintained and even strengthened -- the adult obesity rate in the United States would soar to 50-60 percent (or higher) in all but a handful of states by 2030.
At particular risk are Baby Boomers (those born between 1945 and 1964), who not only represent a bulge in the overall population, but are as a generation reaching those years where obesity-related illnesses, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, tend to manifest themselves. The rate of obese Baby Boomers in Virginia is 34.2 percent, more than 5 percentage points higher than the overall adult obesity rate.
However, this same study found that losing just a small amount of weight could significantly alter outcomes. An adult is considered obese if his or her body mass index (a measurement of fatty to lean tissue) is 30 or above. If Virginia could reduce the average body mass index (BMI) of its residents by just 5 percent, for example, the state could help prevent thousands of cases of Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, hypertension, cancer, and arthritis. Virginia would also save thousands in health care dollars per resident. For a 6-foot-tall person weighing 200 pounds, a 5 percent reduction in BMI would be the equivalent of losing approximately 10 pounds.
Using data from the National Heart Forum, the TFAH analysis makes detailed projections about the obesity-related incidence of disease. For instance, if average BMI is reduced by 5 percent by 2020 in the Commonwealth, over 345,000 cases of obesity-related disease could be avoided, for a potential cost savings of nearly $6.3 billion.
What Influences Obesity?
Body weight is the result of genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, culture, and socioeconomic status. Being overweight or obese typically results from an energy imbalance that involves eating too many calories and not getting enough physical activity to use those calories up. Misinformation, as well as personal behaviors -- including poor nutritional, environmental, or exercise choices -- play a large role in causing people to be overweight and obese.
What is the State's Role?
The state's primary role in obesity prevention and control is to ensure the development of a coordinated strategic plan. The state also participates in programs, such as National School Lunch, National School Breakfast, and Farm-to-School, that set high standards for foods served in the public schools.
State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.
Data and Definitions
State and Regional Obesity Data: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey (BRFSSS) Data. Atlanta, Georgia: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014.
NOTE: 2011-2014 BRFSS results cannot be compared to earlier years because of changes in the sampling methodology.
Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:
School Nutrition Standards:
- Food Research and Action Center, "National School Lunch Program: Trends and Factors Affecting Student Participation," (pdf) 2015
- Legislative Supplement: Obesity-related Legislative Action in States (Update 2011) (pdf)
- National Conference of State Legislatures, State Actions to Reduce Childhood Obesity in School, 2014 (pdf)
- Virginia Farm-to-School
Information on the cost of obesity is available at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.