Fat farm

Rural areas increasingly left to fend for themselves in battle of the bulge against obesity



By Ted Cox

A new study shows that Americans are once again fighting a battle of the bulge in obesity, but stresses that farm communities are increasingly prone to expanding waistlines.

The study, released last week by Harvard University's School of Public Health, finds, "Obesity on rise in U.S., particularly in rural areas."

Basically, the study compared obesity data from 2013 to 2016 with data from 2001 to 2004. It found that youth obesity rose from 15.4 percent to almost 18 percent, with the problem particularly acute in farm communities. The youth obesity rate was 22 percent for rural kids, compared with 17 percent for urban kids.

Overall adult obesity is almost 39 percent, with severe obesity in rural areas tripling among men and doubling among women.

Obesity is typically determined by Body Mass Index, a ratio of height to weight. For instance, for a 5-foot-9-inch person, man or woman, underweight is 124 pounds or less, for a BMI under 18.5, normal is considered 125 to 168 pounds, for a BMI of 18.5 to 25, overweight is 169 to 202 pounds, for a BMI of 25 to 30, and obese is 203 pounds or more for a BMI above 30.

Harvard nutritionist Walter Willett emphasized the trend is not irreversible. He cited progress in New York City, "where obesity-reduction efforts have included improving food and nutrition in schools, creating more parks, and mounting a campaign against soda." But "promoting walkable, bike-safe communities can also help reverse sedentary lifestyles" in all areas.

“Everyone needs to be engaged in this if we’re really going to turn around the obesity epidemic,” Willett said.

Nonetheless, a study released last year by the National Center for Health Statistics found that farm communities were increasingly being left behind in the pursuit of fitness.

"We’ve made a lot of efforts to improve care in urban areas, and we’ve been rewarded with a lot of success,” said Dr. Ernest Moy. “Rural areas are often more challenged in terms of getting interventions in places, so they tend to lag behind."

The report found several reasons for that, starting with "vanishing hospitals" closing in rural areas. That has a domino effect on treatment for traffic accidents and opioid addiction, to name just two prominent health problems. Farm communities are also more prone to smoking, and in spite of producing food they can sometimes still be considered food deserts for the overall range of fresh foods available in stores.

The report declared that "working hard is different than working out, and rural residents are less likely than others to be physically active in their free time.," due to the lack of gyms and organized parks programs like, say, softball leagues that city folks take for granted.

Obesity is not just a problem in itself, but has an exponential effect on chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer — all, of course, exacerbated by the lack of hospitals, doctors, and dentists.

The Illinois Department of Public Health has abundant information on obesity, but publications on obesity prevention promise only that they're "coming soon!"

The department "is still working on content for its Obesity Prevention page," according to spokeswoman Melaney Arnold. In the meantime, she directed people to the department's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and another page on obesity's link to heart disease and stroke.