Colorado best in fat nation, but obesity epidemic alarms health experts

By Diane Carman

A study released Thursday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundationreaffirmed Colorados ranking as the leanest state in the nation, but found that Coloradans are caught up in the same ominous trend toward obesity that is occurring across the country and much of the world.

Were the leanest, but were moving in the wrong direction, said James O. Hill, director of the University of Colorado School of Medicines Center for Human Nutrition. Clearly were getting fatter.

The report, entitled F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens Americas Future, found that Mississippi had the highest obesity rate in the nation at 34.4 percent. Colorados is the lowest at 19.8 percent, but that figure represents an increase from 19.1 percent three years ago. Twelve states now have obesity rates greater than 30 percent while Colorado is the only state to post a rate below 20 percent.

Hill said that some segments of Colorados population are faring worse than others in the quest to stay in shape.

For instance, the states rate of childhood obesity is increasing at the second fastest rate in the country, increasing 23 percent between 2003 and 2007.

Obesity rates also are high among African-Americans and Hispanics in Colorado, Hill said.

In commenting on the report Thursday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) noted that four counties have obesity prevalence ranging from 29.5 percent to 42.3 percent.

Chris Lindley, director of the Prevention Services Division of the CDPHE, said the department is pursuing this health challenge as if the future of Colorado depends on it because it does.

The same factors are at work in Colorado as across the rest of the United States, Hill said.

Our leisure time activities are increasingly sedentary ones, he said, citing more and more time spent before televisions and computer screens, and playing video games.

Its easier to make the wrong choice in terms of eating and being physically active that it is to make the right choice, even in Colorado where we have lots of options for outdoor activities.

The data in the report illustrate a runaway trend toward obesity that shows no signs of abating. Sixty-eight percent of American adults were said to be overweight or obese. The rate of obesity among adults grew from 15 percent in 1980 to 34 percent in 2008. (Obesity is defined as a body mass index of 30 or greater, or about 30 pounds overweight for a 5-foot-4-inch tall person.)

The report found a strong correlation between household income and education levels and obesity, with persons with lower incomes and less education having significantly higher rates of obesity.

Medical conditions related to obesity also are on the rise, according to the report.

Researchers noted that 37 states had hypertension rates over 20 percent 20 years ago. Now every state is above 20 percent and nine states have rates over 30 percent.

Diabetes rates have doubled over the past 15 years in 10 states. In eight states, the report said, more than 10 percent of adults have type 2 diabetes.

Despite all the bleak news, Hill said there are some positive things on the horizon.

While its too soon to document any results of the efforts, such things as providing healthier food options in school lunch programs, mandating periods of physical activity each day for school children and increasing the availability of nutritional information on restaurant menus could help Americans develop healthy lifestyles.

Hill rejected one theory for Colorados lowest-in-the-nation obesity rate that was floated on a Wall Street Journal blog last year. It quoted Bill Dietz, director of the CDCs division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity, speculating that Coloradans were leaner because of the altitude, not lifestyle factors.

There is no evidence that altitude plays a role across the state.

Hill said that metabolic changes caused by altitude could be a small factor in weight at high elevations, such as in Leadville, but most of the population lives at much lower altitude, so I dont buy that.