The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obesity and well-being: Why diet and exercise alone may not be enough to slow America’s growing weight problem

An overweight woman sits on a chair in Times Square in New York in this 2012 file photo. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

America’s obesity epidemic is getting worse and it appears to be tied up with a poorer overall sense of well-being.

The obesity rate rose last year, to 27.7 percent, according to a massive Gallup and Healthways survey of more than 175,000 Americans nationwide. That rate is 2.2 points higher than where it was in 2008, when the survey was launched, with higher rates associated with lower well-being scores overall, Gallup and Healthways found.

“The thing about obesity is that it most certainly infiltrates these other aspects of well-being,” says Dan Witters, research director of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. “It has tentacles; it’s not just a physical wellness issue. It’s also a thing that retards our ability or our potential to reach high levels of well-being across all the elements.”

The obesity rates were calculated from self-reported height and weight measurements, collected as part of the broader Gallup-Healthways Well-Being survey, for which at least 500 American adults are interviewed all but a few days a year. The survey seeks to track five elements of well-being: purpose, social, financial, community and physical.

[The best states for women in America, in 11 maps and charts]

After controlling for various factors, the researchers found that obese adults are roughly 34 percent more likely to suffer in financial well-being than those who are not and about 29 percent more likely to suffer in having a sense of purpose in life. They are about 18 percent more likely to suffer in their sense of community well-being and about 15 percent more likely to suffer in social well-being.

The findings suggest that promoting diet and exercise alone may not be enough to slow the growth in obesity, Gallup and Healthways write in their analysis. Poor sense of purpose, financial struggle, or a lack of supportive relationships may also contribute to the rise in obesity and need to be addressed.

[Map: The most religious states in America]

“Accordingly, members of the medical community, policymakers, employers and others working to combat obesity should seek interventions that address residents’ sense of purpose, relationships with their communities, financial health and social networks,” they write.

Obesity rates were lowest in the West and Northeast and highest in the South and Midwest.

The obesity rate was lowest in Hawaii, the only state where fewer than 1 in 5 residents were obese. The obesity rate there was 19 percent, while it was highest in Mississippi and West Virginia at 35 percent and 34 percent, respectively. Both states have consistently ranked among the two with the highest obesity rates since at least 2011.

Four states—Alabama, Nevada, New Mexico and Minnesota—saw obesity rates rise last year in a statistically significant way. Only one, Tennessee, saw a statistically significant decline.

[Want to live in the state with the best well-being? You’d better bundle up.]

Since Gallup began tracking obesity rates in 2008, four states have consistently ranked among the 10 with the highest rates: West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky. Colorado has consistently had one of the nation’s two lowest rates and, with California, Massachusetts and Connecticut, has ranked among the 10 states with the lowest obesity rates since 2008.