SANTA FE – With 16.9% of its young residents between the ages of 10 and 17 considered obese, New Mexico’s rate ranks as the 11th worst in the nation, according to a new study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Among the state’s young Hispanics, the obesity rate is 19.8%, according to the New Jersey-based nonprofit. The report noted that the obesity rate for New Mexico youth has held steady in recent years.
Mississippi (25.4%), West Virginia (20.9%) and Kentucky (20.8%) had the highest rates of youth obesity, while Utah (8.7%), Minnesota (9.4%) and Alaska (9.9%) had the lowest rates.
For the nation as a whole, black and Hispanic youth had higher rates of obesity (22.2% and 19%, respectively) than white (11.8%) and Asian (7.3%) youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity is defined as a body mass index that is at or above the 95th percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex.
“These differences by race, ethnicity and geography did not happen by chance,” said Dr. Richard Besser, president and chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “They are a result of discriminatory policies and systems that have been in place for decades. However, we have the power to change these outcomes and make our nation a more equitable society.”
The data in the study came from the 2017 and 2018 National Survey of Children’s Health. The report cited other research that found that youth obesity rates increased significantly from 1999-2016, but plateaued from 2013-16.
The New Mexico Department of Health says that from 2010-18, obesity decreased among third graders in New Mexico, to 20.8% from 22.6%, but the percentage of kindergarteners who were obese remained relatively steady, at 13.3% in 2018, up fractionally from 2010.
The Health Department has identified the window between kindergarten and third grade as a critical time to prevent excessive weight gain, and the state’s initiatives have taken this into account, according to Rita Condon, manager for the state’s Obesity, Nutrition and Physical Activity Program.
Despite the progress in curbing youth obesity nationwide, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation warned that recent changes to government food assistance could reverse the trend.
Among the nonprofit’s recommendations:
n The U.S. Department of Agriculture should roll back proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, that would cause more than 3 million people to lose benefits.
n The USDA should maintain nutrition standards for school meals that were in effect before December 2018.
n In revising the Women, Infants and Children food aid program, the USDA should make sure guidelines are “scientifically based.”
The foundation also appeared to support taxes on sugary beverages as a means of curbing youth obesity, with a call for state policymakers “to allow cities and counties the flexibility to regulate tax or otherwise enact strong legislation related to children’s health.” In 2016, Santa Fe voters rejected a proposal to fund pre-K education by taxing sugary beverages at the rate of 2 cents per ounce.
The report focused primarily on nutrition, not on exercise as a means of reducing childhood obesity. Through its Health Kids Healthy Communities effort, New Mexico is promoting opportunities for physical activity before, during and after school with in-school walking clubs, walk and roll to school programs and active, welcoming schoolyards.