Special Report

States Where Children Are Struggling With Obesity

Genetic background, environmental factors, lifestyle preferences, and other variables have contributed to the rising prevalence of obesity and its concentration in certain parts of the United States. A 2015 study in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care identified various factors that can lead to obesity including excessive sugary drink intake, increased meal portion size, and reduced physical activity.

Technological developments likely help explain reduced physical activity among children in the United States.

In an email to 24/7 Wall St., agricultural economist at the United States Department of Agriculture Young Jo cited research connecting increased use of technology, declines in physical activity, and obesity. “[P]hysical activity has declined due to technological shift to more sedentary work. In other words, an increase in technological advancement has coincided with an increase in obesity rate in the US.”

About 8.5% of children up to 17 years old nationwide watch more than four hours of TV on an average weekday. In 11 of the 25 states with the highest prevalence of childhood obesity, the share of children watching at least four hours of TV exceeds the national average. In the 25 states with the lowest childhood obesity rate only five exceed the national average.

Television is just one form of technology that’s encouraging children to dismiss playing outside and leading an active lifestyle. Cell phones, computers, and handheld video games are also contributing to children’s sedentary lifestyles. According to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, children ages 8-18 spend approximately 7.5 hours a day using technology.

Income is another potential factor contributing to a higher obesity rate among children, though it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how financial status can contribute to high obesity rates among children, Young noted.

“There is a hypothesis that healthier foods are relatively more expensive and thus low-income households cannot afford low calorie, more nutritious diet. Also, children from low-income households are more likely to live in neighborhoods with less outdoor activity space.”

Nationwide, 66.1% of parents say they can always afford healthy meals for their children. In 14 of the 15 states with the highest prevalence of childhood obesity, an even lower share of parents report they can always put healthy food on the table.

It is important to note that assessing obesity in children is much different and considerably more challenging than for adults, whose bodies for the most part have stopped growing. For children and teenagers BMI can fluctuate wildly between ages as well as between genders.

While the BMI calculation for adults uses weight and height, the calculation for children includes weight, height, age, and sex. The distribution of BMI over a given age cohort is used to determine BMI in children. A BMI within the 5th-85th percentile is considered a healthy range. Anything above the 85th percentile is considered overweight, and above the 95th percentile is indicative of obesity.

To identify the states where children are struggling with obesity, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from the Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health, a project of the child and adolescent health measurement initiative. The rank is based on the percentage of children ages 10-17 whose weight falls within or above the 95th percentile in each state. 24/7 Wall St. also retrieved data on how many parents claim to be able to afford nutritious foods for their children between the ages of 0-17, the percentage of children of that same age range that watch four or more hours of television per day, and percentage of children ages 6-17 who are physically active at least one hour every day from the Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health. The median household income for each state came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey.