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Obesity rates still rising in many states; Alaska ranked 30th

From Wire,Staff Reports
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

America continues to get fatter, according to a comprehensive new report on the nation's weight crisis. Statistics from 2008-2010 show that 16 of the nation's states are experiencing steep hikes in adult obesity, and none has seen a notable downturn in the last four years.

Alaska falls in the middle of the pack nationwide -- 30th in obesity -- but is on the same trajectory as elsewhere. Alaskans are heavier than they were just 15 years ago.

Meanwhile, cases of Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure that health experts have long warned would result from the nation's broadening girth and sedentary ways are becoming increasingly widespread, according to the report, titled "F as in Fat," released Thursday.

Even Coloradans, long the nation's slimmest citizens, are gaining excess poundage. With an obese population of 19.8 percent -- the only state with an adult obesity rate below 20 percent -- Colorado remains the caboose on the nation's huffing, puffing train to fatland.

But in just the last four years alone, the ranks of the obese even in Colorado have grown 0.7 percent. And Colorado's hypertension rates have risen significantly as well -- to encompass 21.2 percent of adults.

The report, prepared by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America's Health, is the groups' sixth annual state-by-state accounting of obesity. It used body mass index (BMI) to determine overweight and obese status. The method is considered flawed by some authorities, especially when applied to individuals, but cited by others as an appropriate way to report data pertaining to large populations.

In the last 15 years, the report said, adult obesity rates have doubled or near-doubled in 17 states. Two decades ago, not a single state had an obesity rate above 15 percent. Now they all do.

TWO-THIRDS OF ALASKANS OVERWEIGHT OR OBESE

Alaska tied with Virginia in 30th place, with 25.9 percent of adults considered obese, and 64.9 percent considered either obese or overweight. Fifteen years ago, the percentage of obese adults in Alaska was 15.7 and the percent of overweight and obese was reported as 52.3.

Using numbers averaged over a three-year period, the report showed a decrease in obesity of 1 percent for Alaska in 2008-2010 compared with 2007-2009. But it included a margin of error of 1.6 percent for the Alaska number. Andrea Fenaughty, chronic disease epidemiologist for the state Department of Health and Social Services called it "insignificant."

"We're a small state with small numbers. You can easily wash out that 1 percent point change," she said.

"This report doesn't tell us anything new," said Karol Fink, program manager for DHSS's Obesity Prevention Program.

The Alaska health officials stressed that the important information was that 1 out of every 4 Alaskans is obese and the rate of overweight and obese Alaskans is rising by 1 percent each year.

The concern is that weight problems contribute to diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and other serious health issues, said Fenaughty.

"These chronic conditions are more prevalent in older populations," she said. So even though Alaska ranks near the bottom among the 50 states for hypertension (48th) and diabetes (50th), those rankings are "largely driven by the fact that there are a lot more 65-year-olds living in Florida."

Fenaughty pointed to data showing a median age of under 32.7 for Alaska compared to 36.5 for the country at large and noted that while 12.6 percent of Americans are over 64, only 7 percent of Alaskans are that age.

"We're a very young state," said Fink.

But the young of today eventually become the elderly of tomorrow.

"When you look at it year by year, the changes are incremental," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health. But if you back up a generation and look at the slow but steady climb of Americans' weight, he said, "you see how we got into this problem."

Getting out of it will not be simple, Levi said. The report stressed the need for a range of measures, including boosting physical activity in schools, encouraging adults to get out and exercise, broadening access to affordable healthy foods and use of "pricing strategies" to encourage Americans to make better food choices.

This story was written by Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times, with additional Alaska reporting by Mike Dunham of the Daily News.

PDF: ''F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future''
From wire and staff reports