Obesity rates among Wisconsin adults are higher than previously reported for the state. According to findings from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin (SHOW), a population-based health examination survey, 39.4 percent of Wisconsin adults are obese.

The state’s obesity rate is 4.5 percent higher than the national average obesity rate of 34.9 percent. Obesity rates are higher in people who are older, poor, less educated, minorities or who live in a community with high economic hardship. The prior estimate of 31 percent for Wisconsin was based on phone surveys and self-reported height and weight. 

This is one of the findings reported in the latest issue of the WMJ, a publication of the Wisconsin Medical Society. The publication features findings from studies led by researchers at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and its Obesity Prevention Initiative; the studies focus on a range of issues related to obesity and obesity prevention in Wisconsin.

Increased risks for illnesses, higher health care costs

“This is a concerning finding,” says Patrick Remington, MD, MPH, associate dean of public health at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, “because it means that more Wisconsin residents are at risk for Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and other obesity-related illnesses, and, in turn, our state is at greater risk for higher health care costs and lost productivity due to these illnesses.”

Shoshannah Eggers, a population health graduate student at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and a student researcher with the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin, was the study's lead author.

In addition, three studies demonstrated significant disparities in obesity and its causes in the areas of pre-pregnancy obesity, adolescent fitness and physical activity and neighborhood disparities in restaurant food environments. The latter was based on findings from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin and included contributions from SHOW co-director Kristen Malecki, PhD, MPH, and founder Javier Nieto, MD, PhD, MPH.

Two additional studies that examined obesity-related policies and novel community-based interventions show that Wisconsin has marked room for improvement regarding obesity prevention, especially in terms of obesity-related health policies and in efforts to improve nutrition and physical activity.

Policy changes could benefit state

The Obesity Prevention Initiative, established by the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, emphasizes the need for broad-based efforts to align research, education and community partnerships that lead to sustainable changes in obesity prevention. The initiative, which addresses individual-level health through population-level health changes, has the potential to help Wisconsin become a national model for obesity prevention.

“Our research shows that Wisconsin could benefit from policy changes that promote healthier living,” says Alex Adams, MD, MPH, principal investigator of the Obesity Prevention Initiative. “These types of changes — like school policies that provide healthier meals and promote physical activity — result in less weight gain, increased physical activity and better health for our children and families.”

Adams says, “Wisconsin has tremendous opportunity to improve the public’s health by promoting nutrition and physical activity policies that will help make ‘the healthy choice, the easy choice’ for individuals across our state, and in doing so, reduce obesity and its related illnesses.”

The Obesity Prevention Initiative is funded by the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. The initiative was established in 2014 to address Wisconsin’s obesity epidemic.

About WMJ

Published by the Wisconsin Medical Society, WMJ is devoted to the interests of the medical profession and health care in the Midwest. This peer-reviewed publication, which is available in print and electronic format, is one of the few state medical society-sponsored medical journals that publish a large amount of original research and academic content.