Obesity Continues to Rise in Most States

Massive public efforts to curb the U.S. obesity epidemic are falling tragically short, with populations in most states becoming more obese with each passing year, according to a new report that underscores the failure of initiatives aimed at promoting exercise and good nutrition.

The discouraging trends, reported in the fifth annual "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America, 2008" report from the Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), reveal that obesity rates rose in 37 states in the past year, while no state registered a decrease in obesity.

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Worse, in 24 states the uptick continued a trend seen from the previous year. Obesity rates rose for a third consecutive year in a total of 19 states.

"Our analysis found that on the state and community levels, overall we are not treating the obesity epidemic with the urgent response it deserves," said Jeff Levi, executive director of TFAH, during a Tuesday morning press conference.

As in years past, states in the South were found to have particularly high obesity levels. The region accounted for nine of the top 10 most obese states.

Mississippi holds the dubious honor as the most obese state, with 31.7 percent of adults qualifying as obese. Colorado is the slimmest state, with only 18.4 percent of the adult population classified as obese -- but even this figure is the result of two years of steadily increasing obesity rates.

According to the report, Colorado remains the only state in which the adult obesity rate is less than 20 percent.

"In 1991, no state had an obesity rate of more than 20 percent," said Dr. James Marks, senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, during the press conference. He added that the new figures are cause for "urgency and outright alarm."

"It's shocking, the rate of this increase… Our nation is in a public health epidemic that continues undiminished," he said.

The findings suggest that Americans are further than ever from achieving the health goals set forth by Healthy People 2010 -- an effort that aims to reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity among adults to less than 15 percent and among children to less than 5 percent by the year 2010.

In fact, the report's authors estimate that if the the percentage of adults who are either overweight or obese continues to climb at the current rate, 75 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese by 2015.

"With each and every year, we see more and more evidence that the obesity epidemic continues to gain speed and force," Marks said.

The new report comes just two weeks after a study by Dr. Youfa Wang of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore suggested that if current overweight and obesity trends continue, 86 percent of Americans could be overweight or obese by the year 2030 -- and by 2048, virtually all Americans will be overweight or obese.

Obesity rates among children younger than 5 have doubled over the last two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The prevalence of childhood obesity has prompted pediatricians to encourage parents to start monitoring their children's weight. Conditions like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which were once seen as only affecting adults, have reached a much younger age group.

Heavy Health Implications

The new numbers suggest the continuation of a steady trend toward obesity that has been seen over the past several decades. In 1980, the report notes, the national average of obese adults was a mere 15 percent. Today, according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention, about a third of adults are obese.

With the increase in obesity has come a spike in the diseases associated with excess weight. According to the report, rates of type 2 diabetes -- a disease typically associated with obesity -- grew in 26 states last year.

Levi said the spike in such diseases carries a financial burden as well.

"Obesity is not just about health; it has a real impact on our country's economy as well," he said.

Though estimates of exactly how much this added weight impacts the economy vary, CDC figures suggest the additional medical expenses brought about by overweight and obese Americans accounted for 9.1 percent of total U.S. medical expenditures in 1998 -- a figure that may have topped $78.5 billion.

In the decades to come, this figure could balloon to nearly $1 trillion every year, according the study published by Wang.

Slim Hopes?

Not all obesity-related news in the past year has been quite so bleak. In November 2007, a CDC study found that there was virtually no change in obesity rates among men and women between the periods of 2003-04 and 2005-06. A similar stall was seen in childhood obesity rates during this time period.

But most public health experts maintain that the rates still remain far too high for comfort. Particularly worrying is the fact that the obesity rate in children, while shown to be relatively stable in some past research, indicates that about 1 in 5 American children are obese.

Marks says the only way to reverse this trend is a greater investment from all sectors in society in anti-obesity efforts.

"The resources that have been devoted to improve the health of families and children and the steps taken remain few and ineffective," he said.