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Fat and Getting Fatter: U.S. Obesity Rates to Soar

According to an advocacy group, by 2030 more than half of the Americans in the vast majority of states, will be obese….

Mississippi is expected to retain its crown as the fattest state in the nation for at least two more decades. The report predicts 67 percent of that state’s adults will be obese by 2030; that would be an astounding increase from Mississippi’s current 35 percent obesity rate.

The new projections were released this week by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The two organizations regularly report on obesity to raise awareness, and they rely on government figures.

The group’s dismal forecast goes beyond the 42 percent national obesity level that federal health officials project by 2030. The group predicts every state would have rates above 44 percent by that time, although it didn’t calculate a national average.

About two-thirds of Americans are overweight now. That includes those who are obese, a group that accounts for about 36 percent. Obesity rates have been holding steady in recent years. Obesity is defined as having a body-mass index of 30 or more, a measure of weight for height.

Trust for America’s Health officials said their projections are based in part on state-by-state surveys by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1999 through 2010. The phone surveys ask residents to self-report their height and weight; people aren’t always so accurate about that.

The researchers then looked at other national data tracking residents’ weight and measurements and made adjustments for how much people in each state might fudge the truth about their weight. They also tried to apply recent trends in obesity rates, along with other factors, to make the predictions.

Officials with Trust for America’s Health said they believe their projections are reasonable.

"If we don’t do anything, I think that’s a fair prediction," said Dr. Thomas Farley, health commissioner in New York City, which just passed a regulation banning supersize sugary drinks to curb obesity.

Childhood obesity has risen at a startling rate in the last three decades, going from 7 percent to 20 percent between 1980 and 2008 in children ages 6 to 11, and from 5 percent to 18 percent in children 12 to 19 over the same time period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But this is the first time the report offers projections about adult obesity, expected to increase at staggering rates along with related diseases and healthcare costs.

Nationally, about two-thirds of adults and a third of children are currently overweight. About 35 percent of adults are obese, or have a body mass index (BMI) of over 30.

The report estimates that by 2030, all 50 states could have obesity rates above 44 percent. Jeff Levi, the executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, said that if the projections sound alarmist, consider this: "Since just 1991 most states have gone from being between 10 and 15 percent (for adult obesity), to where we are now with many above 30 percent," he said.

"We’ve got a huge problem. But I think because it seems so big from a societal standpoint and individual standpoint, it’s important to note that small changes now can make a big difference later."

The report says that if states decrease average BMI by only 5 percent, every state can spare millions of residents serious health problems such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke and arthritis, and save billions of dollars in health spending — which amounts to between 6.5 percent and 7.8 percent of costs in nearly every state.

The report predicts that over the next two decades, all 50 states could have obesity rates above 44 percent; 13 states could have rates above 60 percent and 39 states could have rates above 50 percent.

Mississippi is on pace to have the highest obesity rate at 66.7 percent and Colorado would have the lowest at 44.8 percent.

The report estimates that across the United States the cost of treating preventable obesity-related illness will increase by $48 billion to $66 billion per year by 2030. Researchers place current costs at between $147 billion and nearly $210 billion annually.

The report’s recommendations to slow the trend range from fully funding and implementing President Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to updating nutrition standards for snack foods and beverages in schools and making physical fitness a priority in elementary and secondary education.

Levi said that while the trust is keeping an eye on experiments around the country aimed at reducing obesity, such as New York’s ban last week on large sugary drinks, the organization is stopping short of calling for mandates. Rather, it’s looking at what various local and state governments can do to help residents make healthier choices.

"We do know that for kids one less sugar-sweetened beverage a day can make a big difference in their health," he said. "The policy for government is to remove obstacles to healthy choices.

Nutrition and Diabetes, Sept 2012