Vermont television stations Monday reported that “Vermont has the highest youth obesity rate in New England.” It was part of a state-by-state analysis provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation which ranked Vermont 20th overall for youth ages 10-17.

The 15.1 percent obesity rate was just below the national average of 15.3 percent, but was a jump from below 12 percent reported two years ago. It’s an important story in that obesity is a strong predictor of chronic illness later in life. The chances are overwhelming that if a child is obese at an early age they will be obese as an adult.

The problem with the story, as reported, is that the figures are most likely wrong. The information gathered by the foundation is all self-reported by parents or caregivers, and the sample size is not clear. We don’t know if there is a rural or urban bias.

That’s not the foundation’s fault. The foundation itself is highly reputable. But, as a state, and a nation, we don’t gather that information with any level of useful specificity.

We know that because RiseVt has made obesity its core mission. Two years ago RiseVt went to every school in Franklin and Grand Isle county to measure each of the students in grades 1, 3 and 5. The total sample size was 1,742 and of the total only 27 students declined to participate, and another 52 parents opted out on behalf of their children, which gave RiseVt a 96 percent participation rate.

The methodology was scientific, and, obviously, not self-reported. The height and weight of each student was taken and recorded. The information compiled is the stuff data crunchers prize most: it’s not disputable.

What that data showed is that of the 96 percent measured, 41 percent were either overweight or obese. These are first, third and fifth graders.

The breakdown was even more specific:

Grand Isle: 20 percent obese, 13 percent overweight

Franklin Northwest: 28 percent obese, 18 percent overweight

Franklin Northeast: 25 percent obese, 20 percent overweight

Franklin West: 14 percent obese, 17 percent overweight

Maple Run Unified School District: 24 percent obese, 19 percent overweight

The 15.1 percent obesity rate reported by the foundation isn’t even close. There is no reason to believe the obesity rates in Franklin and Grand Isle counties are significantly different in Vermont’s other counties. There may be pockets in each [like Fairfax in Franklin County], but with perhaps the exception of Chittenden County, the demographics of the rest of Vermont parallel ours. We also have per capita incomes above the state average, so it’s not just a poverty issue.

If our obesity rate is averaged out over the five school districts covering both counties, our obesity rate would be 22 percent, or roughly 46 percent higher than the self-reported average recorded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

That changed percentage is something reflected nationally. The information gathered by the foundation, or anyone else, will roughly reflect the same thing RiseVt has found with our two counties. The obesity rate among our youth is much higher than is being reported.

It’s a crisis in the making. Obesity is the precursor to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc. It’s the leading cause of chronic illnesses, which constitutes 84 percent of the cost of health care.

Our level of obesity is double what it was a generation ago. When that’s understood it’s also crystal clear that we can expect the onset of chronic illnesses to hit at earlier ages. Instead of people becoming sick at age 55, they will become sick at 35, which means they will be sicker, longer. That means the cost of health care will continue to soar unless prevention takes hold as a matter of policy and practice.

by Emerson Lynn