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The Nation

American Waistlines Grow, Especially in Southern States

August 30, 2006|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

The United States continues to get fatter, with Mississippi and other Southern states leading the way, according to a report issued Tuesday by the advocacy group Trust for America's Health.

The report found 29.5% of Mississippi residents were obese. Nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of obesity are in the South, the report says.

At the other end of the spectrum, Colorado is the leanest state, with 16.9% of its residents obese -- still above federal guidelines, which call for a maximum obesity rate of 15%.

California ranked 30th, with 22.7% of residents considered obese.

From 2004 to 2005, the percentage of obese people increased in 31 states and stayed constant in the rest. No state showed a decline.

"Obesity now exceeds 25% in 13 states, which should sound some serious alarm bells," said Dr. Jeff Levi, executive director of the group. "Quick fixes and limited government programs have failed to stem the tide."

The states with the highest rates of obesity are also those with the highest rates of hypertension and diabetes, which are typically associated with fat.

The economic costs are devastating, Levi said. At least 27% of healthcare costs in the United States are a result of obesity and lack of physical activity, he said.

No one knows why obesity is so prevalent in the South, Levi said. Experts typically attribute it to poverty, cultural factors and diet.

Obesity is measured as a function of body mass index, or BMI, a ratio calculated using weight and height. A person with a BMI higher than 30 is generally considered obese. An individual who is 6 feet tall and weighs 230 pounds, for example, has a BMI of 31.

The data were compiled by the federal government's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which collects health data through telephone interviews. As a result, the data probably underestimate the true extent of obesity, Levi said. Generally, women tend to understate their weight and men overstate their height, both of which contribute to lower BMIs.

The report makes several recommendations for decreasing obesity, few of them surprising. Among them:

* Food manufacturers should change nutritional information to reflect package size rather than serving size to avoid consumer confusion.

* Employers should provide time and facilities for exercise.

* Communities should be designed to encourage walking and bicycling.

* Schools should enforce existing guidelines for physical fitness and improve nutrition in school lunch programs.

The report is available online at www.healthyamericans.org.

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