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Obesity Rates Continue to Climb in U.S.

WEDNESDAY July 1, 2009 -- The rates of adult obesity in the United States increased in 23 states during the past year and did not decrease in any state.

And the number of obese and overweight children has now climbed to 30 percent in 30 states, a troubling trend that could signal decades of weight-related health problems such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease as these children become adults.

Those are just some of the worrisome findings in an annual report on obesity in America, released Wednesday by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"This report reaffirms that obesity is a danger both abundantly clear and almost universally present," said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Yale University School of Medicine Prevention Research Center, who was not involved in the report. "It truly is a public health crisis of the first order, driving many of the trends in chronic disease, in particular the ever-rising rates of diabetes."

For the fifth year in a row, Mississippi topped the list as the state with the highest rate of adult obesity, at 32.5 percent, according to the report, F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America 2009.

Besides Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama and Tennessee have obesity rates above 30 percent. Eight of the 10 states with the highest number of obese adults are in the South. The state with the lowest adult obesity rate is Colorado, at 18.9 percent, according to the report.

In 31 states, obesity rates exceed 25 percent, and in 49 states and Washington, D.C., the rates are above 20 percent.

Overall, two-thirds of American adults are now obese or overweight, according to the report.

As recently as 1991, no state had an adult obesity rate higher than 20 percent; in 1980 just 15 percent of adults were obese, the report noted.

And childhood obesity continues to be a growing concern, with the rate of childhood obesity more than tripling since 1980.

Mississippi also had the dubious distinction of posting the highest rate of obesity in children ages 10 to 17, at 44.4 percent. Minnesota and Utah had the lowest rates, both at 23.1 percent. The South is home to eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of obese or overweight children.

The current economic crisis could make the obesity epidemic worse, with food costs -- especially for nutritious foods -- expected to rise. And the numbers of Americans struggling with depression, anxiety and stress, which can contribute to obesity, are increasing, the report said.

Not all the trends covered in the report were discouraging. Some other findings:

  • Standards for school meals in 19 states are stricter than United States Department of Agriculture requirements. Five years ago, just four states had laws mandating stricter standards.
  • Nutritional standards for foods sold in schools exist in 27 states, compared to six states five years ago.
  • Weight screening of children and teens is now required in 20 states; five years ago it was just four states.

Still, the health risks posed by the obesity epidemic are inescapable. Baby boomer's have the highest rate of obesity, compared with previous generations. And as boomers age, Medicare will have to pay a hefty price for the chronic conditions caused by obesity, the report said.

Why are so many Americans so fat? "Quite simply," Katz said, "because we can."

"Throughout almost all of human history, calories have been relatively scarce and hard to get, and physical activity an unavoidable part of survival," he said. "We have now devised a modern world in which physical activity is scarce and hard to get, and calories are unavoidable. We are the proverbial fish out of water, living in an environment totally at odds with our physiology."

To help reverse the obesity trend, the report authors offered a number of solutions, including nutrition and obesity counseling and screening for obesity-related diseases, both for adults and children.

They also recommended increasing the number of programs in communities that make nutritious foods more affordable and accessible, and providing safe places for people to get physical activity.

The report also called upon local, state and the federal governments to support programs that provide schools with healthy foods, make healthy foods more affordable, support more physical activities at schools, get kids to watch less TV and spend less time with computers and video games, and encourage companies to offer workplace wellness programs.

More information

For more on the health risks of obesity, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Posted: July 2009


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