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Obesity Rates Still Rising, CDC Says

Mississippi Has Highest Obesity Rate, With 34% of Residents Obese; Colorado Lowest at 18%

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 3, 2010 -- More Americans are becoming obese. Obesity rates inched up 1.1% between 2007 and 2009, according to a new report released by the CDC.

In just the past two years, 2.4 million people have joined the ranks of the obese. About 72.5 million U.S. adults are now obese, the report found. That's 26.7% of the population, compared to 25.6% in 2007.

Some states are more affected than others, says Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, director of the CDC, who presented the data at a teleconference Tuesday. "The number of states where self-reported obesity is 30% or higher has tripled, from three to nine."

Obesity Rates: The Numbers

In the latest tracking of obesity rates, the CDC used the 2009 survey data known as the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) to update estimates of national and state-specific obesity rates. The BRFSS is an ongoing state-based telephone survey conducted annually.

Respondents self-report weight and height, although researchers know men and women tend to overestimate height and women tend to underestimate their weight.

This year's survey results show that no state met the Healthy People 2010 target of reducing obesity to 15%, although some states did better than others.

Obesity is defined as having a body mass index or BMI of 30 or higher. A 5'8" person who weighs 200 pounds, for instance, has a BMI of 30.4.

Colorado, with 18.6% of residents obese, came closest to the Healthy People 2010 goal. Mississippi, with 34.4% of residents obese, did the worst.

While 33 states had obesity rates of 25% or more, nine of those had an obesity rate of 30% or more. In this bottom tier (in alphabetical order) are:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • West Virginia

When researchers look at another data source, the NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey), they find a higher percentage of the population -- 33.9% -- is obese. For that survey, height and weight are measured by researchers rather than self-reported.

"Obesity is common, serious, and costly; it affects every system in the adult body," says William Dietz, MD, MPH, director of the CDC division of nutrition, physical activity, and obesity, who also spoke at the teleconference.

The report, published today in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, also found that for 2006, medical costs linked with obesity were estimated at as much as $147 billion, expressed in 2008 dollars. On an individual level, an obese person has estimated medical costs that are $1,429 higher per year than people of normal weight.

No figures are available on what part of that $1,429 is out of pocket, Dietz says, although he says that research should be done.

Obesity Rates: A Closer Look

Some ethnic groups have higher rates of obesity than others, the report found. As a group, non-Hispanic blacks had a 36.8% obesity rate, while Hispanics had a rate of 30.7%. Non-high school graduates had a rate of 32.9%.

Older adults were also more likely to be obese, with 31.1% of people aged 50 to 59 obese and 30.9% of people aged 60 to 69.

Obesity Rates: A Second Opinion

"I'm not surprised," says Naomi Neufeld, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine and founder of KidShape, a national program for overweight and obese children.

"It's gone up because in the throes of this double-dip recession, Americans are so stressed they still turn to food for comfort," Neufeld tells WebMD. "Even if they know better, they are going to eat what's stress reducing. What is surprising is it didn't go up more, given the stressful conditions under which Americans are living right now."

She says more practical measures are needed to help people on an individual level. "I have not seen significant changes on the front-line level that would promote sound behavior in nutrition and exercise," she says.

What's needed, for instance, are ratings of food in the market that are easier to understand than the nutrition labels, she says. People with healthy habits need breaks on health insurance costs, she says.

Children have a difficult time understanding the food guide pyramid, Neufeld says. Instead of teaching them the entire pyramid, focus on one nutrient, such as fiber. "Once they have mastered that, you can go on to the next."

Obesity Rates: What to Do

According to Frieden, several steps can reduce or prevent obesity, including:

  • Increase physical activity.
  • Increase intake of fruits and vegetables.
  • Reduce screen time at televisions and computers.
  • Reduce high-calorie food intake, especially sugary drinks.
  • Increase breastfeeding rates.
  • Expand community programs that make local produce available.

SOURCES: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Aug. 3, 2010, vol 59: pp 1-5.

Teleconference, CDC, Aug. 3, 2010.

Naomi Neufeld, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics, University of California Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine; founder of KidShape.

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