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Obesity rates worse in southern states than Alaska, new study shows

Craig Medred

Finally, a list on which Alaska doesn't lead the nation: fatness.

An analysis out Monday from Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gives that distinction to Mississippi, where more than a third of the population -- 34.9 percent to be exact -- are obese. The South, in general, is a national leader in fat people. Alaska is a midpacker.

Trust for America, which based its analysis on new figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ranked Alaska No. 28. Only slightly more than a quarter of the people in the 49th state are truly fat. The CDC bases its determination on a body mass index (BMI) of 30.

On that scale, a 5-foot, 5-inch woman has to top 180 pounds to qualify as obese, and a 6-foot man has be pushing 225 pounds. Alaskans who fall below these weights could well be considered chubby, but not fat, according to the Trust. The full "2012 F as in Fat" report will be out soon. The 2011 version is already online.

The obesity problem in America, the organization stresses, isn't about appearances; it's about health and health-care costs.

“Obesity has contributed to a stunning rise in chronic-disease rates and health-care costs. It is one of the biggest health crises the country has ever faced,” Jeffrey Levi, the trust's executive director, said in a press release. "The good news is that we have a growing body of evidence and approaches that we know can help reduce obesity, improve nutrition and increase physical activity based on making healthier choices easier for Americans. The bad news is we’re not investing anywhere near what we need to in order to bend the obesity curve and see the returns in terms of health and savings.”

The necessity for a war on obesity seems to be one of the few issues in American that President Barrack Obama and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin share common ground, although they don't necessarily agree on tactics. An avid runner, the svelte Palin has many times touted exercise as healthy. Meanwhile, not-quite-as svelte First Lady Michelle Obama has leaned more toward dietary changes, although she's also been heavily involved with the "Let's Move'' campaign to get American kids off their duffs.

Many argue that a war on obesity might be one of the easiest ways to cut American spending on health care. A 2011 study in "Health Affairs'' concluded that in 2006, obesity-related medical costs totaled $147 billion a year in the U.S., or about 10 percent of all medical spending.

“Our nation has made important inroads to creating healthier communities,” Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, the Johnson Foundation president and CEO, noted in a joint press release. “Some cities and states that have taken comprehensive action to address the epidemic are beginning to see declines in their obesity rates. But we need to expand and intensify our efforts. Investing in prevention today will mean a healthier tomorrow for our children.”

Western states, where people tend to have more active lifestyles, seem to be doing best at staving off obesity. Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the nation, but even there about one in five people are fat. And the obesity rates in many states appear to be going the wrong way -- up instead of down.

The "F as in Fat" report out later this year will, according to the Trust, take a shot at forecasting 2030 obesity rates state by state based on current trends and offer some suggestions on what to do to stop the epidemic. "The analysis,'' according to a press release, "will also examine the potential impact of a 5 percent reduction in body mass index (BMI) levels and the number of Americans who could be spared from type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke, hypertension, arthritis and obesity-related cancers if they were able to achieve that reduction.

Additionally, the projection will feature the cost savings that could be achieved in each state with a 5 percent BMI reduction. For a 6-foot tall person weighing 200 pounds, a 5 percent reduction in BMI would be the equivalent of losing roughly 10 pounds."

Want to compare Alaska's standing with that of friends and relatives living elsewhere? Here are the state-by-state rates of the moment:

1. Mississippi (34.9%); 2. Louisiana (33.4%); 3. West Virginia (32.4%); 4. Alabama (32.0%); 5. Michigan (31.3%); 6. Oklahoma (31.1%); 7. Arkansas (30.9%); 8. (tie) Indiana (30.8%); and South Carolina (30.8%); 10. (tie) Kentucky (30.4%); and Texas (30.4%); 12. Missouri (30.3%); 13. (tie) Kansas (29.6%); and Ohio (29.6%); 15. (tie) Tennessee (29.2%); and Virginia (29.2%); 17. North Carolina (29.1%); 18. Iowa (29.0%); 19. Delaware (28.8%); 20. Pennsylvania (28.6%); 21. Nebraska (28.4%); 22. Maryland (28.3%); 23. South Dakota (28.1%); 24. Georgia (28.0%); 25. (tie) Maine (27.8%); and North Dakota (27.8%); 27. Wisconsin (27.7%); 28. Alaska (27.4%); 29. Illinois (27.1%); 30. Idaho (27.0%); 31. Oregon (26.7%); 32. Florida (26.6%); 33. Washington (26.5%); 34. New Mexico (26.3%); 35. New Hampshire (26.2%); 36. Minnesota (25.7%); 37. (tie) Rhode Island (25.4%); and Vermont (25.4%); 39. Wyoming (25.0%); 40. Arizona (24.7%); 41. Montana (24.6%); 42. (tie) Connecticut (24.5%); Nevada (24.5%); and New York (24.5%); 45. Utah (24.4%); 46. California (23.8%); 47. (tie) District of Columbia (23.7%); and New Jersey (23.7%); 49. Massachusetts (22.7%); 50. Hawaii (21.8%); 51. Colorado (20.7%).

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com