U.S. Obesity Epidemic Continues to Spread

THURSDAY July 7, 2011 -- A new report outlining how obesity threatens America's future reveals that obesity rates climbed over the past year in 16 states, and not a single state reported a decline in the proportion of excessively overweight residents.

The report, released Thursday, also found that more than 30 percent of the people in 12 states are obese. Four years ago, only one state could make that claim.

Twenty years ago, "there wasn't a single state that had an obesity rate above 15 percent, and now every state is above that," said Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, which compiled the report.

"We have seen a dramatic shift over a generation," he added. "This isn't just about how much people weigh, but it has to do with serious health problems like diabetes and hypertension. These are the things that are driving health care costs."

With the exception of Michigan, the 10 most obese states are in the South. The Northeast and West reported the lowest obesity rates. In addition, in eight states, more than 10 percent of adults suffer from type 2 diabetes, according to the report.

Mississippi, where 34.4 percent of the people are obese, has the highest obesity rate. Other states with obesity rates above 30 percent include: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. Thirty-eight other states have obesity rates above 25 percent.

For the second year in a row, obesity rates rose in Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Rhode Island and Texas.

And, for the third year straight, more residents of Florida, Kansas, Maine, Oklahoma and Vermont tipped the scale toward obesity.

Colorado, with an obesity rate of 19.8 percent, is the only state where the rate is less than 20 percent, the investigators found.

Other highlights of the report include:

  • The number of adults who do not exercise rose across 14 states.
  • Obesity among men is up in nine states, but dropped for women in Nevada.
  • Obesity prevalence varies with education and income. The least educated and the poorest had the highest rates of obesity; college graduates had the lowest.

More than one-third of children and adolescents are obese or overweight, with the highest prevalence in the South. However, the new data indicate that obesity among children and adolescents may have leveled off, except among the heaviest boys.

"This generation of kids could have shorter life spans, because people are getting diabetes and hypertension much earlier," Levi said.

The solution is simple, he added: Eat less, exercise more. "We have reconstructed our lives so that we don't build in physical activity. We have neighborhoods and communities that are food deserts, where the only food you can find is unhealthy fast food," he said.

Samantha Heller, a dietitian in Fairfield, Conn., called childhood obesity "a complex, multi-faceted problem that needs to be tackled from many different angles." She said she wished the report offered ways to educate parents and caregivers about healthy eating for children.

Parents and caregivers make approximately 75 percent of the food decisions for children, Heller said, so it is essential that they learn about healthy, affordable foods and meals for children that make sense to them.

"Overall, I am hopeful that the report will help motivate food companies, local and state governments, schools and communities to generate a good head of steam to help stem the tide of childhood obesity," she added.

Obesity expert Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., called the report "a reminder that obesity ranks among the most urgent public health problems of our time. While efforts to reverse obesity trends are proliferating, the tide has not yet turned, and more needs to be done."

The report makes it clear that interventions need to be tailored to diverse settings, Katz added. "I support the view that the root cause of epidemic obesity is everything about modern living, and that it will take the aggregation of a lot of effective programming to change our course," he said.

Levi noted that the federal government was introducing programs to stem the obesity crisis, but "we need to fund these programs adequately," he said.

"We now know the pieces that need to be put into place [to reduce obesity]," he added. "Some of them are about what we as individuals do, but a lot of it is also about what we as a community come together to do," Levi stated.

More information

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

Posted: July 2011


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