Children aged 10 to 17 in Mississippi are leading the nation in obesity. Adults follow close behind, as Mississippi has the second highest obesity rate in the nation, according to the State of Obesity Website.
While Mississippi leads the nation in obesity, nutrition experts say other states are, unfortunately, catching up. Some organizations in Oxford and across the state are working to combat the issue.
“Even if we think that Oxford maybe doesn’t have the best food options, Oxford is a virtual paradise compared with many parts of Mississippi,” said Dr. Kathy Knight, a registered dietician and associate professor of nutrition and hospitality management at the University of Mississippi.
“And also, even though [food is] sometimes hard to get, your hear about the fact that there are children who go to bed every night hungry, so it is definitely complicated.”
An unhealthy diet is not necessarily a matter of poverty either. A broader scope of change is necessary. Knight said food preference is first determined by taste, then followed by other factors, such as health. For many families, healthy food may not be a priority, she said.
“I think people are concerned about their health, but they have a lot of things they are worried about,” said Knight.
However, it isn’t just food availability that is plaguing the state. Lack of exercise also plays a big role in obesity rates. In Mississippi, only 58% of people have adequate access to locations for physical activity, according to the County Health Rankings and Roadmap Website.
“The South tends to be very rural, so that doesn’t afford a lot of public exercise places,” said Knight. “There’s not a lot of sidewalks, and most Southerners are still skeptical of bike lanes.”
Although it may be crucial to health, realistically, many individuals do not have the time or resources to invest in ample exercise. However, local organizations are trying to make it accessible and practical for everyone.
Cheyanne Clouse, a graduate assistant for the University of Mississippi’s Campus Recreation Department, said college demands a lot of students.
“They are spread very thin trying to be involved,” she said, “but I think they do have time to exercise as long as they are intentional with their time.”
Despite the many obstacles preventing Mississippians from living a healthy life, many local groups are striving to change the norms. More locally, in Oxford, the University of Mississippi Campus Recreation department works to enforce healthy habits for students and the community.
Clouse said the university gym has long hours and a group fitness class scheduled at convenient times, with classes of varying lengths to make it possible for the community to have access to exercise.
“We have opportunities for community, faculty and staff membership for our facility as well as students getting it for free,” said Clouse. “We also do events that are open to the community.”
Clouse said the Campus Recreation Department is striving to make a healthy lifestyle possible for busy college students. “One of the new things we did was put pedal and walking desks at various locations around campus so students can be active while studying,” said Clouse.
Other organizations, such as Good Food For Oxford Schools in Lafayette County, are also helping others develop healthy habits for children, which will serve as a foundation for health later in life.
Additionally, according to the Healthy Food Access Portal website, in 2012, the Mississippi House passed the Small Business and Grocer Investment Act to provide underserved communities with increased access to healthy foods.
If these efforts to promote health in Lafayette County, and the broader state of Mississippi continue, positive change can be made, which will lead to several other resulting changes.
Nevertheless, the effort must be continued on a national level as rising obesity rates are not just confined to Mississippi, but continue to climb across the nation.
“Even though Mississippi is still one of the most obese states in the nation, the other states are catching up really fast,” Knight said. “The diets in a lot of the other parts of America are not that much better, and people are not exercising. That’s not a Southern thing.”
According to Knight, four of the Top 10 leading causes of death, including heart disease, diabetes, many types of cancers and strokes, are a direct result of an unhealthy diet. This puts a huge strain on the healthcare system in America.
“Mississippi is not only the most obese state in the nation, we also have the highest rates of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes,” Knight said. “Complications from that include blindness, amputations and surgical complications. Our healthcare system is absolutely slogged with the complications of lack of exercise and unhealthy died. It’s a vicious cycle.”