Opinion: Mississippi’s overlooked epidemic

A recent report ranks Mississippi as the most obese state in the U.S (courtesy)

Opioids and abortion have dominated newspaper headlines in the Magnolia State in recent months and weeks, but an equally-pervasive problem is killing off scores of Mississippians every day.

The Starkville Daily News cited a recent report today that - yet again - ranks Mississippi as the most obese state in the U.S.

Mississippians have become desensitized to this concept and many wear it as a badge of honor, chalking it up to the deep-fried delicacies we value so much down here.

Don’t get me wrong, I love fried chicken and Coca-Cola as much as anybody.

But while the most recent data from the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) shows Mississippi to have the third-highest rate of adult obesity among U.S. states, that rate has jumped dramatically to 35.5 percent in the present from 23.7 percent in 2000.

The rise in the state’s adult obesity rate further underscores a problem that is escalating out of control and as a lifelong southerner, I can tell you there are innumerable factors at play that continue to bloat and kill our fellow Mississippians with increasing frequency.

The MSDH reported that in 2015, Mississippi ranked first in the nation for overall diabetes prevalence, with over 333,000 adult Mississippians living with diabetes. This represents over 14 percent of the state’s adult population.

Diabetes also accounted for 1,091 deaths in Mississippi in 2015. These are deaths strictly associated with diabetes, and do not include obesity-related heart disease and cancer.

In 2016, MDHS reported 7,876 deaths per 100,000 people directly related to heart disease, making it the single leading cause of death among Mississippians.

In the Golden Triangle, the last 10 years show some improvements in terms of local trends, but the numbers have remained mostly constant.

In Clay County, which has the highest percentage of obesity among Golden Triangle counties at 39 percent, there have been 57-78 heart-disease related deaths per year since 2007.

For Oktibbeha County, where 33 percent of residents are considered obese, the number of heart disease-related deaths peaked in 2008 with 98, but has since stayed below 80 every year until the present.

Mississippi is also the most poverty-stricken state, with a noticeably low availability of healthy food options - all in a state where agriculture is the economic backbone.

For many in the area, their budgets only cover nutritional options found on a Dollar Menu or in discount stores like Dollar General or Fred’s.

Those economic concepts, coupled with unhealthy eating habits learned from previous generations, makes for a lethal combination facing Mississippi’s roughly three million inhabitants.

The financial burden placed on taxpayers should also not be overlooked. In a state starved for funding, where roads sit cracked and school systems struggle to keep the lights on, the state spent $925 million in health care costs directly related to obesity in 2008.

Experts insist if the trends continue, obesity-related health care costs could reach $3.9 billion this year.

While much is offered in the way of data to further chart the effects of Mississippi’s obesity problem, few tangible solutions have been offered.

State policymakers prefer to harp on the dog-whistle issues of opioids and abortion, but little is being said about how the state plans to address the widespread obesity epidemic. After all, obesity is a problem impacting Mississippians of all ages and races.

Some may argue the number of obesity-related deaths pales in comparison to the number of opioid deaths and that the issue is not as politically polarizing as the 2,000-plus abortions performed in the state every year.

These tactics may work on the campaign trail, but they only serve to lower the importance placed on addressing the obesity epidemic.

Health and nutrition education seem to be the most prevalent strategies pushed by researchers for addressing the issue, but the education route comes up short when the economic and social constructs in the average poor household overrule how people, especially children, approach their diet and lifestyle.

I acknowledge there’s no magic wand capable of fixing these problems, but if the conversation is pushed to the periphery in favor of more polarizing issues, then we will continue to see the trends spiral in the wrong direction.

Larger cities across the country have made some progress by encouraging innovative community gardening initiatives and after-school programs that promote active lifestyles for children living in poverty. However, many small Mississippi communities lag these trends, mostly due to a combination of economic shortfalls and social norms.

My novice and idealistic solution begins at the local level for places that have a proven track record of innovating their way out of trouble … like the Golden Triangle.

I implore our city and county leaders across the region to actively discuss what can be done at the community level to promote healthier lifestyles among citizens.

This can start by getting the community involved in the dialogue to get a clear understanding of the challenges they face in their day-to-day lives.

I think we can start by asking these questions:

• How far do poor citizens have to drive or travel to access healthy food options?

• Is there reliable public transportation to take poor citizens to retailers that offer healthy food options?

• What decisions do poor citizens have to make when standing in the grocery aisle?

• What would it take to get citizens more active?

• What are we doing as a community to encourage local farmers to sell their products in a way that is easily accessible to high-poverty areas?

I also encourage the average Mississippian to take simple, yet effective, measures to promote their own personal wellbeing. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, cut the sugar from your coffee a few times a week, or simply go for a brisk walk after a stressful day at work.

I’m in no way a community planning expert or a social scientist, but I believe if we harness the potential of our intelligent and socially-active community leaders and take a proactive approach to better serve the people, surely we can work toward a solution to slim this state down.

Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News and Daily Times Leader. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of either paper, or their staffs.