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A new national study on obesity has alarming news about Mississippi, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. We lead the nation in adult obesity and are second behind Kentucky in childhood obesity. And just like every other state, we saw our rates increase over the past year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic changing our eating, exercise and daily habits.

Obesity is not about someone being fat. And it’s not just a problem for those who are obese. The apathy and “they should just lose weight” mentality that seems to greet discussions of this issue illustrate the ignorance of too many people as to the causes of obesity and to the real impact obesity has on our state as a whole.

The new report — conducted by the nonpartisan public health policy advocacy group Trust for America’s Health — relays the following dour statistics about Mississippi:

  • 39.7% of adults are obese (highest in nation)
  • 72.8% of adults are overweight or obese (highest in nation)
  • 14.6% of adults have diabetes (3rd highest in nation)
  • 43.6% of adults have high blood pressure (2nd highest in nation)
  • 22.3% of children ages 10-17 are obese (highest in nation)
  • 23.4% of high school students are obese (highest in nation)

Study after study links obesity to poorer health outcomes in individuals and shows it is a leading cause or complicating factor of several diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. We also know that the unhealthier a population, the higher health care and insurance costs rise for everyone.

As we said, obesity doesn’t just hurt those who are inflicted, it affects everyone, which is why everyone should care.

“So how do we get people to stop eating too much?” you might ask.

Well, the first thing you should do is realize that “eating too much” is a gross oversimplification of the issue and a rather crude response to a complicated problem.

There are several factors that lead to high obesity rates. Some are cultural — like the South’s love of all things fried. Then there are the key indicators like food scarcity, poverty, health insurance coverage and access to recreational areas (i.e. sidewalks, parks, etc.). These make up what the study calls Social Determinants of Health Index. Mississippi ranks last in the overall index and at or near the bottom in each of the various sections.

TAH points out what other health advocates have said: Fighting obesity requires a systemic approach.

“A systems approach includes reducing longstanding structural and historic inequities that have been intensified by the pandemic; targeting obesity-prevention programs in communities with the highest needs; and scaling and spreading evidence-based initiatives that promote healthy behaviors and outcomes (e.g., within healthcare, transportation, and education sectors),” the report says.

Government has a key role to play with policies aimed at addressing the underlying causes of obesity, particularly at the state and federal levels. Local governments can also have a great impact, especially school boards.

But government alone is not the answer. By realizing what problems increase the risk of obesity, nonprofit groups, social organizations, community leaders, businesses and individuals can help tailor their altruistic efforts toward these issues.

As State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said about the findings of this report, “Our past does not determine our future.”

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