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Obesity Rate in U.S. Still Climbing

New findings show no state posted a decline in adult rates last year

MONDAY, Aug. 27 (HealthDay News) -- More and more Americans are sliding into obesity, a clear signal that this national health problem is getting worse.

According to the fourth annual report prepared by the research group Trust for America's Health and released Monday, adult obesity rates rose in 31 states last year, 22 states experienced an increase for the second year in a row, and no state had a rate decrease.

A related public opinion survey found that 85 percent of Americans now believe that obesity is an epidemic.

For the third year in a row, Mississippi topped the scales with the highest rate of adult obesity in the country. It also has the dubious distinction of being the first state to record a rate higher than 30 percent (30.6 percent), according to the report, F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America, 2007.

Colorado was again the thinnest state, but even its adult obesity rate increased over the past year, from 16.9 percent to 17.6 percent.

"Despite increased attention to the obesity epidemic, obesity is continuing to grow in America," Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, said at a news conference Monday. "While some promising policy efforts are under way, the nation still lacks comprehensive, effective strategies for addressing this serious health crisis."

Dr. James Marks, senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the project, was bleaker in his assessment of the findings at the news conference.

"We find this report to be a devastating indictment. We're in the middle of a public health crisis that is still deteriorating rapidly, and we're treating it like a mere inconvenience rather than the emergency it is. Over the past year, obesity rates got worse in nearly two-thirds of states and got better in zero. That is not progress. The number of states with obesity rates greater than 25 percent has more than doubled in just two years. That's not sending a wake-up call. We're ringing the disaster alarm," he said.

The existence of an obesity epidemic in this country is not news, but the rapidity with which Americans' waistlines are expanding is unprecedented. Obesity lurks behind several serious illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

According to the new report, rates of adult obesity exceed 25 percent in 19 states, up from 14 states last year and 9 in 2005. In 1991, no state had an adult obesity rate exceeding 20 percent.

The South is a locus of the problem, possessing 10 of the 15 states with the highest rates of adult obesity. In addition, the South also had eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of overweight children (aged 10 to 17).

According to Levi, the South had higher levels of type 2 diabetes and hypertension and lower levels of reported physical activity. Mississippi had the highest rate of adult inactivity, at 31.6 percent; Minnesota the lowest at 15.4 percent. In the nation overall, 22 percent of adults reported that they do not engage in any physical activity.

The rates of overweight children ranged from a high of 22.8 percent in Washington, D.C., to a low of 8.5 percent in Utah. Overall, about 25 million U.S. children are overweight or obese, the report found

"Diseases that used to be considered adult illnesses like type 2 and high blood pressure are becoming increasingly common among children," Marks said. "If we fail to reverse this epidemic, the current generation may be the first in American history to live sicker and die younger than their parents' generation."

Among the study's other findings:

  • Only 17 states require that school meals and snacks meet higher nutritional standards than the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires (six states enacted new laws in 2006-07).
  • Only 22 states have mandated nutritional standards for foods sold in vending machines, a la carte, in school stores or at bake sales, and only 26 states limit where and when such foods can be sold on school property beyond federal requirements.
  • Many physical education requirements in schools are limited in scope or not enforced.

This year's report also included a national opinion survey, which showed that 81 percent of Americans believe the government should play a role in addressing the obesity crisis, 55 percent of parents with children under 18 believed school lunches were not nutritious enough, and more than two-thirds of Americans believe children do not participate in enough physical activity.

In addition, 60 percent of those polled favored a proposal to measure students' BMI annually and provide this information confidentially to parents or guardians (currently 16 states provide BMI or fitness status information to parents or guardians confidentially).

The authors of the report also put forth recommendations for combating the problem.

"There isn't going to be a magic pill or a magic bullet," Levi said. "We need action from government, from communities, from individuals, and we need a major cultural shift. We need to change the norms in our society about healthy eating and about physical activity."

"This is going to require more than any single intervention," Marks added. "Schools have to be behind this, but it's also something that industry and business have to be behind."

Specific recommendations included: developing, at the federal level, a National Strategy to Combat Obesity; ensuring that all Americans have access to a workplace wellness program; increasing research on promoting healthy choices; and providing more recreational places.

"The only scorecard that matters is the health of our people, and right now obesity and the illnesses it causes are still getting worse," Marks said. "The need for strong interventions couldn't be clearer, and our leaders must answer that call."

More information

Visit Trust for America's Health to see how each state fared.

SOURCES: Aug. 27, 2007, teleconference with Jeffrey Levi, Ph.D., executive director, Trust for America's Health, and James Marks, M.D., senior vice president, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Aug. 27, 2007, report, F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America, 2007

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