Obesity Rates Are Increasing in 16 States

Adult obesity rates increased in 16 states during the past year, and none of the 50 states showed any decline in their rates of obesity, a study shows.

July 7, 2011 -- Adult obesity rates increased in 16 states during the past year, and none of the 50 states showed any decline in their rates of obesity, a study shows.

The findings are from the eighth edition of the "F as in Fat" report put out by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Obesity rates have doubled in seven states since 1995 and increased by 90% in 10 other states; 22 states saw obesity rates increase by as much as 80%, the report shows.

The state with the lowest obesity rate today, Colorado, would actually have had the highest rate in 1995, according to the study.

But the report does offer a glimmer of hope: It marks the first time that there were fewer than 20 states with increasing adult obesity rates.

Glimmer of Hope?

From 2006 through 2008, more than 30 states saw increased rates of obesity. During the following two years, the number of states experiencing increases in obesity rates was in the 20s. This year's report showed 16 states with increasing rates of obesity.

"This is a small victory and does not mean we can ease off the gas pedal," said James Marks, MD, MPH, senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J., during a teleconference.

This trend may be due to local, state, and federal efforts aimed at making communities more walkable as well as increasing the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables.

"We have to assume the glimmer of hope we can identify is due to these actions and many more that are beginning to get traction," he says. "What we hope we are seeing in the decline of the number of states with increasing obesity rates is that these actions are starting to slow the rate of the increase. In the not-too-distant future, we hope you see states turn the corner."

Obesity Rates High in the South

The new report breaks down obesity rates and anti-obesity initiatives by state, regions, and ethnic groups and also documents the rise in obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Nine of 10 states with the highest rates of obesity are in the South, while states in the Northeast and West had lower rates, the report shows. Mississippi had the highest adult obesity rates for the seventh year in a row and Colorado had the lowest (less than 20%).

Twenty years ago, no state had an obesity rate higher than 15%, but today 38 states have obesity rates over 25%. Obesity rates are growing rapidly in Oklahoma, Alabama, and Tennessee and at a slower pace in Washington D.C., Colorado, and Connecticut.

Overall, rates of obesity are highest among members of racial and ethnic minority groups, the study showed. Along with the increase in obesity rates comes a corresponding increase in diseases associated with obesity such as diabetes and high blood pressure.   

Since 1995, diabetes rates have doubled in eight states, and every state has high blood pressure rates greater than 20%, and nine have rates above 30%.

There is no single reason that obesity rates are increasing across the board.

"A lot of little changes have added up to that," Marks says. "Portion sizes in restaurants and the size of soft drinks that one can get at convenience stores are much larger," he says. "You can get a 44-ounce drink and that is the equivalent of a six pack when I was growing up."

"Snacking has gone up more and more," he says.

It is difficult to even get healthy foods in some parts of the country, Marks says. "We have cut off physical activity funding in schools and the foods that are subsidized are those that are least healthy for children."

Childhood Obesity

Things have the potential to get a whole lot worse too, Marks says. While the 76 million baby boomers play a role in the increasing rates of obesity seen today, the next wave may be even bigger.

"The rate of increase of obesity in children has tripled or quadrupled since the 1970s," he says. "We have an even larger wave coming in unless we can turn it around."

The onus is on everyone involved, says Scott Kahan, MD, co-director of the George Washington University Weight Management Program in Washington, D.C. He served as a peer reviewer of the new report.

The data are "pretty pessimistic," he says.

But "we are finally starting to look at this problem from the big-picture perspective," Kahan says.

It is not an individual willpower issue. "Our behaviors are shaped by the schools we go to, the communities we live in, and the homes we go to," he says. "It is a multi-faceted problem that needs a multi-faceted answer."

"Even really good programs like minimizing the marketing of junk foods to young kids and providing more access to healthy foods won't solve this problem or take a huge bite out of it," Kahan says. "It's got to be comprehensive."

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