Childhood and Adult Obesity Rates Higher in Rural Communities, According to New Data

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If bucolic settings and long, sunny afternoons spent running through fields and forests come to mind when you think of rural areas, new data on obesity rates will reframe those images.

Two new studies on adults and children found obesity rates are higher, and more life-threatening, in America's rural communities.

Once the epitome of active outdoor living -- the majority of our food is still grown in hardworking rural communities -- the nation's rural populations now have some of highest obesity rates.

The studies, both published in the recent issue of the journal JAMA, looked at height, weight, and location of various populations. Combined, the studies looked at more than 17,000 subjects. The adult study looked at subjects over the age of 20 between 2013 and 2016. That research found that 39 percent of rural study participants were obese, with a body mass index of 30 or more. Eight percent were considered severely obese, a BMI of 40 or higher.

The study on children ages 2 to 19 found nearly 18 percent were obese with nearly six percent qualifying as severely obese.

“I want to emphasize that this survey — the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey — is the gold standard” in accuracy for obesity rates, said Cynthia L. Ogden, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an author on both studies told the New York Times.

“When people report their own measurements, they exaggerate their height and minimize their weight,” she said. “This survey has measured heights and weights.”

The researchers say they can't quite explain the difference compared to the lower obesity rates in urban areas. But the rates were just as high between white male populations, Black, and Hispanics.

"Non-Hispanic black women had much higher rates of obesity than white women — 55.9 percent, compared with 38.1 percent for whites," reports the Times. "More than 48 percent of Hispanic women were obese, but only 13.6 percent of Asians."

 The researchers also noted the rural obesity rates increased "significantly" between 2001 and 2016 in adults while childhood obesity rates were consistent.

One factor may be education levels. It's a marker consistent with urban obesity rates as well. The lower the level of education of the head of household, the higher the obesity rates were for children in the home.

Rural settings are some of the nation's poorest and despite many rural communities being home to farms, they're often likely to be considered food deserts -- lacking in access to supermarkets selling fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We looked at a few variables, but there were a lot of things we couldn’t account for," Dr. Ogden said. “The basic differences in demographics between rural and urban regions do not explain these differences in obesity rates. We need to look into this more to understand it better.”

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