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Resources slim in Alaska's fat fight

Alex DeMarban

As a new national study weighs in on America's obesity crisis, health-care costs tied to Alaska's ever-widening waistlines continue to explode. Yet the state has thrown scant resources at the epidemic, health authorities say.

Alaskans are among the fattest people in America. And obesity -- a precursor to diabetes, heart disease, strokes and other ills -- is the state's costliest health issue.  

Recently, it's even surpassed tobacco-use. Private insurers as well as the state and federal government paid $459 million in 2009 to fight medical conditions caused by being fat. That compares to $380 million for tobacco-related health issues.

Penny wise, pound foolish?

Meanwhile, the state provides just $1.5 million for its obesity prevention and control program, said Karol Fink, program manager. The office has just two full-time staffers, plus a couple of part-time epidemiologists.

Her office believes the state could slash bloated medical expenses by promoting healthier lifestyles more effectively, including campaigns that raise awareness about such things as healthier eating. Another need, she said, are community advocates who pursue grants for trails, parks and other efforts that promote fitness statewide.

In the national battle against tobacco, such community-based approaches have reduced smoking, said Diane Peck, community and evaluation specialist for the obesity program. With local leaders running the show, extra funding in communities could help schools provide healthier meals or pay for programs that emphasize physical activity, she said.

Of course, the best solutions are personal. Eating healthier and adding physical activity like a short bike ride or walk to your daily routine helps, Fink said.

"The closest thing we have to a silver bullet is physical activity," Fink said. "If adults can get 150 minutes of walking in a week, we'd see an incredible improvement in health outcomes." A new report from the Institute of Medicine says solving the country's obesity epidemic will take major changes at home and in restaurants, according to an article in USA Today.

Proposals include one hour of daily exercise at school; fast-food restaurants that provide healthier kids' meals; and communities spending more on parks, gyms or other facilities to encourage physical activity.

67 percent Alaska adults overweight

At the national level, Sen. Lisa Murkowski co-sponsored an act that set healthier standards for school meals starting this year, the first upgrade in 15 years. More fruits and vegetables -- as well as fewer harmful fats and sodium -- are required.

It'll take a lot more than that to tighten belts in Alaska. In 2010, two-thirds of Alaska adults were overweight or obese, making the 49th state the 15th fattest in the nation.

Alaska high school students do a bit better than the national average. A fourth of them are overweight or obese, said Peck.

But the prevention program has made headway working with school districts. The number of overweight and obese kids at the Anchorage School District has leveled off in recent years at about 36 percent, down from 38 percent, Peck said.

The district has hired more health teachers and increased physical education time. In 2006, it also banned sodas and junk food from vending machines.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com