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St. Louis zeroes in on obesity problem with localized data

via Flckr/JeannetteGoodrich

The city of St. Louis has updated, localized information about how many residents are overweight. According to 2014 driver’s license data provided by the Missouri Department of Motor Vehicles, about 61 percent of St. Louis residents are overweight or obese.

The St. Louis Health Department released a report analyzing the data on Wednesday.

Department employee Carl Filler helped compile the report. He said the numbers will provide a baseline to measure the success of a goal set by Mayor Francis Slay: to reduce the rate of obesity in St. Louis by 5 percent by 2018.

“One of the first things we realized (after Mayor Slay set the goal) was that we didn’t have a good robust source of information at the city level,” Filler said.

The height, weight and addresses listed on driver’s licenses provided that data, giving the health department the ability to determine the body mass index of St. Louisans at the neighborhood level.

Filler said that level of localization helps the department target its efforts.

“We can also bring on additional resources to those neighborhoods where we have as many as 80 percent overweight and obese. And we know that those folks really do need some additional support around physical activity and healthy eating,” he added.

Eight of the neighborhoods with the highest obesity rates are located in the north corridor of St. Louis. Two are located in the southern part of the city.

“We did notice that around some of the parks there really was a much lower level of overweight and obese numbers, so we’re thinking that maybe …. connecting people better to existing parks, making parks more aligned to what people need … may be an opportunity we’re bringing to the forefront,” Filler said.

While it might not seem like a driver’s license would be the most accurate measure of obesity given that people only have to update their license every six years and may not give the DMV an accurate weight, Filler said the department was given license information for about half of residents the city and used a formula developed by previous researchers to adjust for the propensity to underestimate weight.

The only other obesity report available is a federal survey based on self-reported information, which doesn’t have as big of a sample size for St. Louis or break down the numbers by neighborhood.

Now that the city obesity baseline has been set at 61 percent, the health department knows that it needs to lower that number to 58 percent in order to meet the mayor’s goal.

“We definitely recognize that (the rate of change doesn’t seem like much) however I would say only one or two cities have been able to reach that 5 percent reduction in the past 10 years,” Filler said. “A lot of people might drop from obese to overweight or they might drop from overweight down to normal weight. So some of those changes might be a little bit hidden in that data, and overall weight loss is healthy for folks.”

According to the data, St. Louis is doing slightly better than the state or country: about 61 percent overweightcompared to about 66 percent in Missouri and 65 percent nationwide. The federal numbers include adults 18 and older while the city numbers include those 16 and up with driver’s licenses.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille

Updated at 10:15 a.m. on May 7, 2015 with a more direct national data source provided by the St. Louis Health Department.