Shortly after Karen Hacker took on the job of director of the Allegheny County Health Department, she launched Live Well Allegheny, an initiative to try to improve the health of residents.
If the newest national statistics are any indication, stemming the obesity epidemic needs to be a priority of that effort.
Pennsylvania’s adult obesity rate has fluctuated upward to 30 percent of the population since 2012, according to the latest annual report released Thursday by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
As far as percentage of obesity, it tied with Kansas as the 19th worst states in the nation for obesity. The report uses data from 2013 and shows Pennsylvania’s obesity rate rose 0.9 percent from the 2012 numbers.
Pennsylvania has the highest obesity rank among states in the Northeast, according to the report, though neighbors in the tri-state area fared even worse. West Virginia tied with Mississippi as the most obese states — 35.1 percent of their populations had a body mass index of 30 or higher, the measure of obesity. Ohio, at 30.4 percent, was tied with Missouri for 16th worst. Colorado was the least obese at 21.3 percent.
Although Pennsylvania’s obesity rate moved upward, the amount of increase is not statistically significant enough for the report to consider the state’s obesity rate to have risen. It is considered to have stabilized from 2012.
In fact, the numbers have stabilized in all but six states, where they increased — Alaska, Delaware, Indiana, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wyoming. But the obesity rate did not decline in any states.
“Until we start moving more and think about the quality of the food we’re eating, we’re not going to reverse this epidemic,” Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, said during a teleconference.
The report notes that factors leading to obesity include the inability to obtain healthy, fresh foods and alack of access to safe areas for exercising in certain regions. This is an issue in parts of the Pittsburgh area, such as Clairton, Millvale, McKees Rocks, Stowe, Homewood, the North Side and the Hilltop neighborhood where many residents do not own vehicles and the nearest grocery store is not within walking distance.
The difficulty of obtaining healthy foods combined with the low-income status of residents in these areas forces people to make economically driven decisions leading to poor food choices, said Ken Regal, executive director of the advocacy group Just Harvest. For example, they buy cheap fat- and sugar-laden snacks instead of more expensive fresh fruits and vegetables.
“There’s clearly a link,” he said. “Where there is more poverty, there is more obesity.”
Mr. Regal said Just Harvest implemented a program that allows food stamp recipients to use their benefits at farmers markets. Nine farmers markets are now accepting food stamps, including all seven city park farmers markets as well as Downtown’s Market Square and Swissvale farmers markets.
Dr. Hacker has led the health department for about a year, and when she moved to Pittsburgh from Massachusetts, she said she immediately noticed that the local diet consists of some unhealthy favorites. (Massachusetts, by the way, has the third lowest obesity rate in the country).
“When I came here, it was very clear to me the propensity to eat hamburgers with different sauces on top, french fries and other fried foods,” Dr. Hacker said, adding that it is healthier to substitute baked foods for fried foods.
In January, the health department launched Live Well Allegheny, an initiative focusing on mental wellness, personal and community safety, preparedness, improving well-being and quality of life, education and health literacy.
“The idea is to really start to push the educational campaign at the municipality level,” Dr. Hacker said. “My role is to really try to mobilize and see this as something that’s really going to change health in the whole county.”
Dr. Hacker also said that diets often are passed from parents to their children, so families who alter their diets to be healthier could see improvement. She also urges parents to look at food labels to see what they are really feeding their children.
The health director said she strongly believes in engaging communities through community leaders and organizations to combat obesity and will take part in the 13 public meetings the health department is holding this fall, the first of which will be Sept. 22 at Allegheny General Hospital.
The recent announcement of new bike lanes being created in the city is one example Dr. Hacker sees as progress by community leaders to help fight obesity. The bike lanes create an outlet for exercise while providing cyclists safer routes as they share the roads with motor vehicles.
She added it is important to remember all ages and demographics because it is an issue that threatens everyone.
Obesity rates for Pennsylvanians aged 45-64 were the highest at 33.8 percent. The lowest were 18-25 year olds, who had a 17.3 percent obesity rate.
Statistics showed a divide along racial lines in Pennsylvania: The obesity rate for whites was 28.7 percent compared with 35.6 percent for blacks and 34.8 percent for Latinos.
Dr. Hacker is not sure what accounts for Pennsylvania’s poor standing in the Northeast but said several factors play a role, including geography. That’s because much of Pennsylvania is farther from the ocean, and coastal states seem to have lower obesity rates.
Andrew Goldstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1352.
First Published September 4, 2014 12:19 PM