CDC report: America fatter still

Don't look for the South to rise again unless they cut back on biscuits and gravy

0 | Community Health, Obesity

— You may have guessed as much the last time you elbowed your way through the all-you-can-eat buffet line, but as a nation we're getting fatter and fatter.

That's according to a new report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which drew on data from state reports to conclude that 72.5 million American adults are now obese.

Obesity has been a national problem for more than a decade. The U.S. Surgeon General in 2001 set the goal of each state reducing its prevalence to 15 percent of the population by 2010.

That target date has arrived and instead most states are moving the other direction. No state, not even the leanest, has met the 15 percent goal set a decade ago.

Mississippi, which has an adult obesity rate of 34.4 percent, is still the nation's fattest state. But now there are a total of nine states with adult obesity rates of 30 percent or more and Kansas, which has a 29 percent rate, seems destined to soon join them.

The most obese states are found predominantly in the South and Appalachia, but Oklahoma is now on the 30 percent list, too.

Colorado was the leanest state, according to the new report, with an obesity rate of 18.6 percent.

A solution to the obesity problem seems simple enough: Eat less, exercise more.

But public health officials say it is more complicated than that.

"Why is Kansas now the 16th most obese state in the fattest nation on earth?" asked state health officer Dr. Jason Eberhart-Phillips in an op-ed piece distributed last month to Kansas news organizations. "Short answer: We haven’t created the public policies that make healthy eating and active living the easy thing for most people to do. We haven’t made the default options be the healthy options in the choices people make each day, options that will keep us from gaining unnecessary weight."

In a telephone interview, he said he had some optimism that the problem will eventually be solved despite the apparent lack of progress revealed by the new statistics.

"I think this generation will look like a real aberration when American history is written," he said. "People will look at a picture and say: Hey, that must have been a photo from 2010, look how fat everybody was."

Eberhart-Phillips said he has seen a growing understanding that obesity, "isn't just some kind of a personal, private issue or just about having stronger will power and overcoming your moral failures if you're eating too much."

Instead, he said, more people realize that modern society is structured to make unhealthy eating the easiest kind to do thanks to cheap, processed foods and the billions of dollars spent marketing them.

"I don't get the blank or quizzical looks anymore when I say the real problems with obesity is the way we've designed our lives"

With greater awareness and over time, he said, society will restructure itself to incorporate healthy eating and physical activity.

Eberhart-Phillips said the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has a number of programs aimed at reducing obesity, including help with community audits for figuring out the obstacles or impediments to exercise presented by lack of sidewalks or other infrastructure friendly to walking or bicycling.

The agency also has helped promote farmers' markets with the goal of putting fresh, locally grown produce and other nutritious products in front of consumers.

"We have to get government grants to promote healthy food and yet isn't this an agricultural state?" he said, contrasting the ease with which people can find cheap, junk food almost anywhere, anytime.

He said Kansans need to "reshape the environment."

"We can tell people all we want that they need to eat less, move more," he said. "But how do they do that when everything else tells them eat more and you don't need to move anymore. We just need to make it so living here in Kansas means you're going to get adequate physical activity unless you try to avoid it and a good, healthy, balanced diet is what you eat because that's what is easy to get."

According to the CDC, obesity and its related diseases are a major contributor to the nation's health care costs, as much as $147 billion in 2006.

The agency also concluded that, "past efforts and investments to prevent and control obesity have not been adequate."