Report offers Appalachian residents four strategies to decrease high obesity rate, aimed at deadly obesity-related diseases

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A new report offers practical strategies to help Appalachian communities tackle their high rates of obesity, which is causing many in the region to develop chronic, obesity-related conditions.

The reportHealth Disparities Related to Obesity in Appalachia: Practical Strategies and Recommendations for Communities, was created by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Previous ARC reports have documented the region’s high rates of obesity and obesity-related conditions, like heart disease, stroke and diabetes, which have contributed to people dying from these chronic conditions more frequently than those elsewhere.

The report notes that in 2012, 31% of Appalachian adults were obese, compared to 27% elsewhere in the U.S. The rate was highest, 35%, in Central Appalachia, which is the subregion of the ARC service area that includes all of Kentucky’s Appalachian counties.

The report details four strategies to help Appalachians battle obesity: establishing healthy behaviors in young people, increasing access to healthy food and beverages, creating safe communities that support physical activity, and increasing physical activity and healthy eating among adults.

Before getting started on any of these prevention strategies, the report suggests doing a “community needs assessment” to determine what the community is already doing about obesity and establish what else could be done. The report offers tips on how to do such an assessment, links to state- and county-level health data, and a long list of recommendations for funders.

The report emphasizes establishing healthy behaviors in early childhood, pointing out that child care and schools are uniquely positioned to influence healthy habits. The focus is two-fold, including strategies to increase the availability of healthy foods and beverages in schools and programs that promote physical activity among youth.

The report notes that “farm to school” programs are one of many ways Appalachian schools are working to increase the availability of healthy foods. According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Kentucky has more than 900 schools participating in these programs, Brenda R. Kelly reports for the Kentucky School Board Association website.

Focusing on strategies to decrease obesity in young children is important because studies show that children who are overweight in kindergarten are four times more likely to be obese in eighth grade, compared to those who are not overweight in kindergarten.

“Policies that ensure healthy foods are available for purchase in rural Appalachian communities – such as the tax credit for farmers who donate their products to local food banks that has been enacted in Kentucky and West Virginia – are essential,” Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the foundation, said in a news release. “But grocers cannot afford to stock fresh produce that rots on the shelf, so we also must enact policies and strategies shown to increase consumption of these foods.”

The report notes that such policies could include ones that allow farmers markets to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, and Women, Infants and Children nutrition program benefits; or policies that increase taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.

The report offers several suggestions for creating safe communities that support physical activity, including ones to create safe routes to school or that invest in public trails, parks and recreational facilities, noting that grants are often available for such endeavors.

One such grant program featured in the report was funded by the foundation through its Investing in Kentucky’s Future initiative. The $3 million grant was used to implement various health programs across seven communities, including one in Clinton County that used its funds to build walking trails to schools and add exercise equipment to public parks.

Strategies are also offered to increase physical activity and healthy eating among adults, like offering tax credits for worksite wellness programs, community-wide campaigns to promote physical activity, and social support interventions, like walking clubs.

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