Department of Health and Human Services reveals alarming increase in obesity

Over the past several years, the percentage of obese and overweight Alaskans has increased drastically for both men and women.

Obesity is defined as a body mass index of 30 and above. In 1991, percentage of obese Alaskans was at 13 percent. Twenty-four years later, this value has more than doubled. While only 32 percent of the state’s residents are at a healthy weight, obese Alaskans now account for roughly 30 percent. Nearly 5 percent of them have a BMI equal to or higher than 40, compared to 1.4 percent in 1991.

Photo credit: Jian Bautista

Alaska is not alone with this trend in the United States, as national statistics have shown similar increases in obesity. Vanessa Aniteye, a health sciences major at UAA, is not surprised about the findings of the DHSS.

“Obesity has grown into a major global health problem. In the United States, the prevalence of obesity is just over 36 percent, which ranks Alaska under the national average,” Aniteye said.

Karol Fink, director of the Alaska Obesity Prevention and Control Program, sees the issue in its larger context.

“It is not only an Alaskan issue, but a national issue. [The reasons for] obesity are multifactorial — there are many things that influence the choices that people make. And often the easiest choice is not the healthiest choice,” Fink said. “If you’re hungry at work and there’s nothing healthy available there, you are going to make the choice that is not healthy. It really has to do with where we live and work.”

This is also applicable to children and adolescents. The percentage of overweight and obese children and high school students grew over the past years, and in 2003, high school students who were either overweight or obese made up 25 percent of their peer group — twelve years later, the number is 7 percentage points higher.

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Obesity and being overweight can entail severe consequences and chronic health conditions. Obese adults are at an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, as well as heart disease and stroke, several cancers and premature death.

It is estimated that medical costs directly linked to obesity annually amount to $459 million in Alaska. Affected youth statistically earn worse grades, have more absences from school and face more social stigmatization and discrimination in comparison to their peers. Overweight and obese children are also very likely to become obese adults.

Goals for a decrease in the percentage of obese Alaskans have already been set in a health improvement plan called Healthy Alaskans 2020. This joint project of the Alaska DHSS and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium aims to reduce the adult obesity rate by 3 percent and the youth obesity rate by 4 percentage points within the next three years.

To establish healthy behaviors from a young age, the National School Lunch Program operates in public and nonprofit schools all over the nation.

“The nutrition guidelines for the NSLP were recently updated by the [United States Department of Agriculture] to include more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low fat milk and so forth. There is good evidence that this can prevent obesity,” Fink said.

In Alaska, the Obesity Prevention and Control Program initiated several projects to tackle the issue of unhealthy weight.

“We work with childcare providers across the state to ensure that the foods available in those care centers promote health and are nutritious. We also work to make sure that the people providing childcare have training on age-appropriate physical activities. We work similarly in schools. Part of what we do is helping with the implementation of the USDA guidelines,” Fink said.

Another program focusing on obesity prevention is Healthy Futures AK. It was established by the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame and involves more than 20,000 youth from Alaska. The program’s approach is multi-faceted, including elements such as an activity log challenge, support for age-appropriate community events and access to positive, healthy role models.

Shelley Romer, development director of the program, is convinced that building the habit of daily physical activity can have a significant influence on the life of children.

“Being active… is essential for the development, learning, and growth of young children… [They] may learn better and have improved attention and focus,” Romer said. “Healthy Futures gets lots of positive feedback for our Elementary School Challenge and event support program. We feel proud to know that providing incentives for kids to be active works and motivates children of all ages.”

To reduce the prevalence of obesity effectively, an environment with a set of valid prevention strategies has to be created.