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31 States Record Increases in Adult Obesity

Two-thirds of Americans now at risk of diseases like diabetes, heart disease, report finds

TUESDAY, Aug. 29, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Adult obesity rates increased in 31 states during the past year, leaving an estimated two-thirds of Americans vulnerable to fatal diseases such as diabetes, stroke and cancer.

This, despite federal and state government efforts to curb the overweight epidemic, according to a new report from the Trust for America's Health.

The report, titled F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing America, 2006, was released Tuesday and is the third in a series of annual reports by the trust detailing state obesity rates as well as the effectiveness of government policies to fight the problem.

According to official figures, the adult obesity rate rose from 15 percent in 1980 to 32 percent in 2004. Combine that with the number of Americans who are overweight but not obese, and the figure stands at 64 percent. And the childhood obesity rate more than tripled between 1980 and 2004, from 5 percent to 17 percent.

"The most important news in this report is that the obesity epidemic in America is getting worse," Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, said at a Tuesday morning press conference. "The percentage of obese adults exceeds 25 percent in 13 states. That should sound some serious alarm bells."

At the root of the epidemic is a combination of poor nutrition and lack of physical activity, the report stated. Being either overweight or obese increases the risk for a variety of serious health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

"What's particularly distressing is that we think we understand why this is happening. It's happening because the environment is built to promote obesity, and it is so pervasive that in order to make changes, we really need to change everything," said Cathy Nonas, director of the obesity and diabetes programs at North General Hospital in New York City and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

The new report has Mississippi weighing in as the "largest" state, with 29.5 percent of its adult population considered obese. Alabama and West Virginia are second and third with 28.7 percent and 28.6 percent of the adult population, respectively, in the super-size category. Mississippi also has the highest combined level of obese plus overweight adults -- 67.3 percent.

Overall, the South is the "Biggest Belt," containing nine of the 10 states with the highest obesity rates. The region is also home to nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of diabetes and hypertension, both of which are associated with obesity.

Colorado is the "thinnest" state, with an adult obesity rate of only 16.9 percent. Other "thin" states are in the West and Northeast, including Hawaii (18.2 percent), Massachusetts (18.6 percent), Rhode Island (19.5 percent) and Montana (19.9 percent).

Obesity rates remained stable in 18 states plus the District of Columbia.

Every single state in the union failed to make enough progress to meet the national goal of reducing adult obesity levels to 15 percent or less by the year 2010, according to the report.

"The 2004 and 2005 documents reported that there was no strategic policy to address obesity," Levi said. "The 2006 report shows little improvement. While there are innovative promising pilot programs under way in some parts of the country, for the most part, federal and state policies are limited in scope, designed for the short term and woefully underfunded."

"It's a shared responsibility involving individual and society," he added.

"We believe that all stakeholders must be involved if changes are to take place," said Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan, vice president for academic affairs at Emory University's Woodruff Health Science Center, and chairman of the Institute of Medicine Committee on Progress in Preventing Childhood Obesity.

Among the report's other findings:

  • The percentage of adults who are obese or overweight exceeds 60 percent in 28 states.
  • West Virginia has the highest rate of type 2 diabetes among adults (10.4 percent) while Alaska has the lowest rate (4.5 percent).
  • Mississippi has the highest rate of adult hypertension (32.7 percent) and Utah the lowest (19.8 percent).
  • Seven states now have body mass index screening requirements in schools.
  • All states except South Dakota have school physical education requirements, while 44 states plus Washington, D.C., have school health education requirements. There is little enforcement capability in either of these cases, however.
  • Seventeen states plus Washington, D.C., have passed taxes on junk food or sodas.

Efforts to combat the obesity epidemic have failed to meet their goals, Nonas said. "I don't think they're going far enough," she said. "The perfect example of this is the physical-education and health-education requirements, where states have very little ability to enforce it. It's good that people are doing this, but it's not enough."

The report also offered a 20-step action plan to address the obesity crisis. Recommendations include improved nutritional labeling on foods; community-driven efforts to increase access to healthy foods in low-income areas; improved nutritional content on foods and beverages served and sold in schools; an improved physical environment with more and better sidewalks, parks and bike paths; better physical fitness curricula in schools; and employer-sponsored programs to increase physical activity and provide better insurance coverage for preventive services.

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that being obese in midlife dramatically increases your risk of dying early. People who are overweight when they are 50 have a 20 percent to 40 percent increased risk of dying prematurely. For obese people, the risk of premature death is two to three times that of normal-weight people. The primary causes of death in the group studied were heart disease and cancer.

More information

To read the full report, visit Trust for America's Health.

SOURCES: Aug. 29, 2006, teleconference with Jeff Levi, Ph.D., executive director, Trust for America's Health, and Jeffrey P. Koplan, M.D., M.P.H., vice president for academic affairs, Emory University's Woodruff Health Science Center, Atlanta; Cathy Nonas, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., director, obesity and diabetes program, North General Hospital, New York City, and spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing America, 2006
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