Beyond The Numbers: Obesity in Mississippi

According to The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, Mississippi is the second most obese state in the nation tied with West Virginia and Alabama. In 2015 and now in 2016, Louisiana is in the number one spot for being the most obese state in America with 36.2 percent of adults suffering from obesity. In Mississippi, 35.6 adults are currently suffering from obesity with a body mass index 30 or more.

For Mississippi, this issue is nothing new. In fact, since 1990 Mississippi has consistently been one of the most obese states in the nation, if not the most obese state.

In 2006, over 30 percent of Mississippian’s were obese. Over 35 percent of Mississippian’s are obese today, ten years later. While the overall rate of obesity in Mississippi is rising and has been doing so for over a decade now, the percentage at which that rate is rising from year to year is declining.

Between 1995 and 2000, the obesity rate went up by 4.3 percent. Between 2004 and 2006, the obesity rate went up by 2.8 percent. Between 2006 and 2008, it went up by even less, 1.9 percent. From 2010 to 2013, the rate went up by just 0.7 percent and by 2015 it only went up by half of one percent. Between 2015 and this year, the rate has stayed the same. Even though the rate of obesity in Mississippi is extremely close to being the highest in the nation just behind Louisiana, if the percent at which the overall rate rises continues to decrease, then it is inevitable that other states will pass the state of Mississippi, right? Based off of the data, that is what I inferred. After further researching the many factors that go into what potentially makes one state more obese than another and talking with the program administrator of the Mississippi Center for Obesity Research, Emma Willoughby, I found that unfortunately this is not exactly the case.

“We might be seeing an overall decline due to healthier behaviors from those who can afford to do it. The poverty rate is higher among black Mississippians than white. Unfortunately, this might be pulling the rate down a bit”, said Willoughby.

Mississippi is currently the poorest state in the nation and consistently one of the most obese. Many families and adults are not financially stable enough to buy foods that provide them with the essential nutrients our bodies need. Sure, it’s cheaper and much easier to buy foods off the shelf that don’t nourish the body like they should, but eating healthy and pursuing a healthy lifestyle actually doesn’t have to so hard or expensive. Ole Miss senior dietetics and nutrition major, Bridget Casserly, believes that a big part of Mississippi’s problem is not just lack of money to be able to fund a healthy diet, but lack of knowledge.

“Sure, Mississippi is one of the poorest states, or the poorest state currently, but many people lack food and nutrition knowledge about being able to eat a variety or foods or healthy food on a tight budget,” said Casserly. “I’m from Mississippi and as I’ve been studying health and a variety of issues that come with it for many people in this state, especially for the ones living in poverty, I’m more motivated than ever to try to help”.

Knowledge is power and it’s imperative to be knowledgable about just how much certain food effect the body, both positively and negatively. In the long run, it will end saving a person’s life and their bank account.

A person who suffers from obesity racks up 40 percent more medical bills per year than a person within a healthy weight range. Therefore, obesity has a direct correlation with Mississippi’s economy. The high rate of obesity in the state is hurting Mississippi financially. Today, we are the poorest state in the country.

“We can anticipate what might happen: the health care costs spent on obesity and its related co-morbidities, like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, depression, and cardiovascular disease, are high. Researchers estimate that over a life course, per-person costs of obesity are similar to those of smoking”, said Willoughby. According to the University of Mississippi Medical Center for Obesity Research, in 2008 the state spent $925 million in health-care costs, not just in general, but directly related to obesity.

Colorado has consistently been the least obese state, fighting for the healthiest spot against Hawaii and Washington, D.C. since 1995. However, the rate at which the overall obesity rate is rising in Colorado has constantly been on the rise until 2015. In 2015, the rate dropped a little more than one percent since 2013 keeping the overall rate of obese adults in Colorado around 20 percent.

It’s true that just because one state is more obese than another does not mean that one state is poorer than another, but it is a serious aspect that factors into the problem among a handful of others. This is especially a factor for states with obesity rates that surpass 30 percent, like Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia. Colorado is not the wealthiest state in the U.S., but it is within the top 15 wealthiest states and also consistently the healthiest. Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia are America’s poorest states. Is this a coincidence?

U.S. Census Bureau
U.S Census Bureau

“In Mississippi, as in other places with a high disease burden, obesity-related illnesses contribute to disability, missed work days, and shortened length of life”, said Willoughby. “This negatively impacts the state’s economic output. Prevention is key to ensure a healthier population”. If the obesity trend continues in Mississippi, obesity-related health care costs will be 3.9 billion by 2018.

Like the economy in Mississippi and Colorado clearly shows, obesity does not only affect one’s health, but it affects multiple aspects of one’s life. Obese adults are more prone to missing work than those who maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle. Obesity has a great impact on one’s productivity in the work place. Unfortunately, it shows for businesses in the state of Mississippi. If one in three adults in Mississippi are obese, the states ability to compete in the business world and attract new industry is hindered.

“The south remains behind in many development indicators, many of which due to the past of a plantation-based economy. This means many of the southern states started off farther behind than the rest of the US (at a disadvantage)”, said Willoughby.

As data clearly shows the rate of those becoming obese in Mississippi is declining, regardless of the overall percentage consistently on the rise, unfortunately that does not mean many positive changes are to come anytime soon. Instead of the state’s focus to help reduce adult obesity, the focus has shifted to children in order to solve the issue in many years to come, rather than in the near future.

“Most of the clinical community and public health researchers have shifted their attention toward prevention in children — not only because this is a more vulnerable population (more out of control of their environments and lives), but also because there is a lot more potential in shifting health behaviors there and seeing an impact on health in the long-term than among adults”, said Willoughby.

After all, children are the future. Fitness trainer and diet technician Robyn Lyons is a firm believer in exercise being the number one key to maintain a long and healthy life. She’s helped local Oxford adults and children lose weight and keep it off simply by tweaking their diets here and there, but more importantly keeping them moving everyday.

“Exercise is what keeps your heart in shape, which is you know the organ that keeps you alive”, says Lyons. “So I feel like as long as people keep a healthy diet for the most part, allowing themselves to splurge every once in a while, and making exercise a priority, a lot of people will realize it isn’t as difficult as people make it out to be”.

Lyons further went on to say that exercise is free. To stay in shape, you don’t have to pay a pricey gym membership or take part in the trendy workout classes every week.

“People, especially in Mississippi, need to understand that those who care about their health aren’t necessarily the richest people in the world, they just get out there and make it a priority to get their heart rate up”, says Lyons. “That is key and more so it’s starting early. Get your kids up and going because their habits now will be their habits later”.