Arkansas continues to struggle with one of the highest obesity rates in the country, a new State of Obesity report released Thursday confirms.
A team from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to come up with state rankings by weight.
Arkansas’s obesity rate stood at 35.7 percent in 2016. In other words, one in three adults is classified obese. Arkansas tied with Alabama in the ranking as the third worst state in the nation.
Obesity is defined in the study as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher.
Arkansas previously held the top slot as the most obese state, before falling to sixth last year, largely because other Southern states surpassed Arkansas. Louisiana took the top spot. This year it’s West Virginia.
“Nine of the top eleven are in the South,” said Albert Lang, a senior communications director with the Trust for America’s Health. He said the higher obesity rates seem to go hand-in-hand with the states that have the lowest educational achievement rates.
"We like to eat. We like to fry a lot of things. For us, it's very social," said Dr. Shane Speights, dean of the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University. In addition to large social gatherings around food, he said Southerners may not get as much physical activity as residents in other parts of the country.
"When I get a chance to visit colleagues in New York, we walk everywhere," he noted.
Lang said the report indicated some stark racial differences among the obese in Arkansas. He said the report found that 44.2 percent of black adults in the state are obese. That compares with a 34 percent rate for whites. Women are slightly more likely to be obese than men, with a rate of 35.1 percent to men’s 34.1 percent.
Arkansas residents who are successfully losing weight said they are not surprised that the rate remains high. Weight loss requires a serious and permanent lifestyle change that challenges many people.
Berryville resident Delinda Richardson lost 100 pounds in 2001 and still works to keep it off. She said today’s lifestyle leaves many people vulnerable to weight gain.
“People are not as active as they were. They are more apt to go through a drive-thru as far as getting their meals,” she said.
She added that emotional eating in response to the stresses of everyday life is a problem for almost everyone, including people who aren’t overweight.
“Don’t get discouraged about it. Lose a little bit at a time,” suggested Fairfield Bay resident Joe Giannini, recently dubbed the “King of Arkansas” by a weight-loss organization that honors residents this way.
While the state report didn’t point to much progress on obesity in Arkansas, its authors said they were gratified that adult obesity is at least not accelerating. Obesity declined in Kansas, rose in four states and remained steady in the others.
Because Arkansas’s rate rose only by 1.2 percentage points, it’s considered to have held steady.
“I would be more concerned if we saw this trend over a ten-year period, going in the wrong direction,” said Speights. He said it’s important to keep a long-term view of the problem, since, as he frequently reminds patients, the weight isn’t gained over a short period of time and isn’t going to be lost in a short period of time.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.