Obesity rises in 28 states, remains highest in the South

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In January of this year, public health officials applauded the fact that, after steadily rising for more than three decades, obesity levels in the U.S. finally appeared to be leveling off. And while holding steady with a third of the adult population obese and more than two thirds overweight hardly had health professionals jumping for joy, a new report released this week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health may deflate even that subdued sense of success. The analysis finds that, in 28 states obesity rates continue to creep upward, and in two thirds of U.S. states more than 25% of adults are obese.

What’s more, the report added further confirmation of the prevalent racial disparities in U.S. obesity rates: only one state, West Virginia, had obesity rates higher than 30% among whites, while 43 states had obesity rates higher than 30% among blacks, and 19 states did among Hispanics. Among blacks, 34 states had obesity rates higher than 35%, and nine states had rates higher than 40%. And, reiterating 2009 findings on the geographic distribution of obesity, the researchers noted that, regionally, the West coast and Northeast had the lowest levels of obesity, while 10 of the 11 states with the highest levels of obesity were in the South. For the sixth consecutive year, Mississippi took home the ignoble title of fattest state in the U.S. with 33.8% of adults categorized as obese.

The researchers also pointed to economic differences in obesity rates: more than one third of adults earning $15,000 or less per year were obese, while less than one quarter of those taking home an annual $50,000 or more were. In the release about the findings, Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, said that in spite of broad efforts to combat obesity — including the formation of the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, new standards for nutrition in school lunches and physical activity in several states, and school-based body mass index screening initiatives for children in 20 states — significant progress remains elusive:

“Obesity is one of the biggest public health challenges the country has ever faced, and troubling disparities exist based on race, ethnicity, region, and income… This report shows that the country has taken bold steps to address the obesity crisis in recent years, but the nation’s response has yet to fully match the magnitude of the problem. Millions of Americans still face barriers — like the high cost of healthy foods and lack of access to safe places to be physically active — that make healthy choices challenging.”

If there was a silver lining to the report, it’s that Colorado appears to be staying trim. In 1991, no state had an obesity rate higher than 20%, now, at 19.1%, Colorado is the only state where fewer than one in five residents are obese. (Still, even Colorado got a tiny bit chubbier since last year, when the obesity rate was 18.9%.)

Read the full report here.

Check out an interactive map of obesity distribution across the U.S. here.