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US Faces “˜Major Public Health Threat’ From Obesity

August 4, 2010

More than 72 million U.S. adults, or 26.7 percent, are now obese, while the number of states with an obesity prevalence of 30 percent or greater has tripled in two years, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on Tuesday.

The figures represent a 1-percentage point increase during the past two years in the number of obese Americans, with nine states now having obesity rates higher than 30 percent, according to latest CDC Vital Signs report.

The nine states are Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Mississippi.  

By contrast, in 2007 only Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee had obesity rates greater than 30 percent.  In 2000, not a single state exceeded 30 percent.

Calling obesity a “major public health threat”, the CDC said the problem is growing progressively worse.

“We need intensive, comprehensive and ongoing efforts to address obesity,” said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden in a statement.

“If we don’t, more people will get sick and die from obesity-related conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of death.”

The August Vital Signs report is based on new data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), which contains state-level public health data and provides a way for states to monitor progress toward Healthy People goals, the CDC said.

To assess the prevalence of obesity, approximately 400,000 people completed telephone surveys in which they were asked to provide their height and weight, which was then used to calculate their body mass index (BMI), the medically accepted way to measure obesity.

Adults with a BMI exceeding 30 are considered obese.  For example, a woman 5 ft. 4 in. tall weighing 174 pounds or more, or a man 5 ft. 10 in. tall weighing 209 pounds or more, would have BMIs of 30 or greater, and would be considered obese.

From 2007 to 2009, the number of American adults who were obese rose by 2.4 million, a 1.1 percentage point increase, the survey found.

However, the CDC said these figures were likely an underestimate, as people often report being taller and weighing less than they actually do.

The problem has both financial and public health consequences.

“Recent estimates of the annual medical costs of obesity are as high as $147 billion. On average, persons who are obese have medical costs that are $1,429 more than persons of normal weight,” read the report.

The BRFSS data underscore how obesity affects some populations more than others.  For instance, the highest obesity prevalence was found among blacks, of whom 36.8 percent are obese.  Hispanics had an obesity rate of 30.7 percent.

Black women had the highest obesity rates, at 41.9 percent. 

Consistent with previous reports, Mississippi had the highest percentage of obese residents, with 34 percent of the population having a BMI of 30 or greater.  Colorado had the fewest percentage of obese residents, with 19 percent classified as obese.

“If you go to Denver and outside of Denver, there are bike trails, walking trails, and they’re heavily used, suggesting that Colorado has more of a culture of physical activity than other states,” Reuters quoted the CDC’s Dr. William Dietz as saying.

Another factor may be Colorado’s high altitudes, which require people to burn more calories to conduct routine physical activities, Dietz said Tuesday during a teleconference with reporters.

No state met the CDC’s 2010 national goal of limiting obesity to 15 percent.  Indeed, only Colorado and the District of Columbia were under 20 percent. 

Dietz said Washington D.C.’s rate of just under 20 percent could be attributable to the city’s public transportation, or to higher rates of breast-feeding and fruit and vegetable consumption.

“Obesity is a complex problem that requires both personal and community action,” Dr. Dietz said in a statement.

“People in all communities should be able to make healthy choices, but in order to make those choices there must be healthy choices to make. We need to change our communities into places where healthy eating and active living are the easiest path.”

Federal and some state governments are looking at legislation to help citizens improve their diet and exercise habits.

“Obesity is a societal problem and it will take a societal response,” Dr. Frieden said.

New York and California, in particular, have considered taxing sweetened soft drinks to offset the costs of treating obesity-related diseases.

President Obama has also stressed the importance of reducing obesity, tasking first lady Michelle Obama and cabinet secretaries with focusing on the issue of childhood obesity.

“At the state, municipal and community level, there can be initiatives through zoning or incentives to provide supermarkets and farmers markets in low-income areas and food deserts,” such as expanding campaigns that seek to provide health foods to schools, hospitals and communities, Dr. Frieden said.

“People in all communities should be able to make healthy choices, but in order to make those choices there must be healthy choices to make,” Dr. Dietz added.

“We need to change our communities into places where healthy eating and active living are the easiest path.”

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