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U.S. Obesity Epidemic Continues to Grow

  • Rosanne Skirble
  • Carol Pearson

A new report by an independent health group www.healthyamericans.org says obesity rates are continuing to rise across the United States. Experts say the findings have enormous implications for the nation's public health.

The report finds that 17 percent of the people in every state in the nation are obese — not just overweight, but obese. People are classified as obese if they weigh 30 percent more than they should, based on an established body-mass index.

Obesity rates increased in 31 states, with 22 of those states experiencing an increase for the second year in a row. No state showed a decrease.

Jeffrey Levi is executive director of the Trust for American Health, the non-profit health research group that conducted the study. He says 19 states had adult obesity rates that exceeded 25 percent, a dramatic rise since the early 1990s. "Back then," Levi notes, "only 4 states had obesity rates above 15 percent, and no state exceeded 20 percent."

Levi says the problem is worse in poorer states, where at least 25 percent of the adults are classified as obese. "Mississippi topped the charts with the highest adult obesity rates for the third year in a row," Levi observes. "It is the first state where over 30 percent of its adult population is obese."

Child obesity is also on the rise. Twenty-five million American children are either overweight or obese.

James Marks is the Vice President of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the organization that paid for the study. He says the report is a devastating indictment. "Our nation is in the middle of a public health crisis that is still deteriorating rapidly. We are not sending a wake-up call. We're ringing the disaster alarm."

Jeffrey Levi of the Trust for America's Health says a national strategy is needed to help Americans make healthier choices about nutrition and physical activity. "This plan should involve every federal agency to find clear roles and responsibilities for states and localities, and to engage private industry and community groups."

The report recommends more physical activity in schools, higher nutrition standards for food served in schools, and changes in government health programs so obesity and nutrition counseling are covered medical expenses. It also recommends that more of the government food-aid funds for the poor be specifically earmarked for fruits and vegetables, and to promote other dietary improvements.

Levi says adopting these measures will require a cultural shift toward a healthier lifestyle, a change that Americans made in less than a generation with regards to another health care problem. "In less than a generation we changed social norms around smoking," Levi points out. "It wasn't just federal government activity that changed norms around smoking. It's what communities decided, what families decided, what individuals decided as well."

The report also calls for more research to find out how to promote healthier habits since obesity contributes to life-threatening illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Health experts note that diabetes in the United States is already at epidemic proportions.

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