CDC reports obesity rates for U.S. adults have doubled since 1980.
States across the nation are struggling with an obesity epidemic.
The CDC last ranked states for obesity in 2008. Obesity rates range from a low of 18.4% for Colorado to a high of 31.6% for Mississippi. The lowest ranked states were: Colorado, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Utah.
According to The Colorado Health Foundation, Colorado’s obesity rate has more than doubled in 13 years. More alarming: even the leanest state is on track to have 35% of its population obese by 2017.
So the obesity epidemic is striking every state. What factors do the leanest states share, and can they help the national fight against obesity?
It’s logical to assume that increased exercise and physical activity are associated with lower body weight.
Brock et al in The Journal of Physical Activity and Health analyzed obesity by state according to physical activity levels. Adjusting for other variables, including age, race, gender and income, they found physical inactivity is associated with obesity.
CDC statistics show that the five leanest states all have 50% or more of their populations meeting recommended activity levels.
Mississippi has the lowest average income-and the highest rate of obesity.
So, is the reverse also true? Do the leanest states have the highest incomes?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, they all rank in the top 19 states for income. In 2008 Connecticut was third, Massachusetts sixth, Colorado fourteenth, Utah fifteenth, and Rhode Island nineteenth.
The Census Bureau reports these five states have among the lowest numbers of people living below the poverty level. In 2008 their state rankings ranged from Rhode Island at number 33 to Connecticut at number 46.
All five states rank in the top 21 of percent of 16 to 64 year-olds in the labor force.
The Colorado Health Foundation found 23.9% of Colorado adults whose income is below $25,000 are obese. While only 16.1% of those whose income is over $75,000 are obese. So even within one state economics seems to be a major factor.
The Colorado Health Foundation reports that lower income families often opt for calorie dense cheaper foods than healthier more expensive alternatives. They also note poorer areas often have more access to cheaper less healthy foods than more expensive nutritious foods.
3. Education Level
According to the Census Bureau, all five leanest states rank in the top 17 for people 25 years and over completing a bachelor’s degree. Additionally, four of these five states rank in the top 11 states for people 25 and over completing an advanced degree.
The Colorado Health Foundation reports one hypothesis is: education increases a person’s understanding of risk factors and the consequences of obesity. They also report research on education and obesity is ongoing.
4. Good Nutrition
In 2004, researchers at the CDC published “Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000” in JAMA. They reported the second leading causes of death in the U.S. were poor diet and inactivity. Together they accounted for 400,000 deaths in 2000.
One measure of healthy eating the CDC follows is how many Americans meet the recommended daily servings of 2 fruits and 3 vegetables. The CDC reports Vermont has the highest percentage of adults meeting the recommended servings. And that rate is only 17.9%: less than 1 in 5!
The five leanest states all have rates of 13.2% or above. Which places them all above average for meeting this recommendation.
An interesting study from Martek ranks states on brain health. Several factors went into the index, including omega-3 DHA in the diet. Three of the leanest states: Connecticut, Colorado, and Massachusetts rank 5, 6, and 7 in this index. All 5 states come in at or above 25.
Why DHA? Well, according to “America’s 10 Brainiest States” in U.S. News & Word Report, Martek produces DHA-containing supplements. The article reports other studies suggest DHA may be important for brain development.
Geography is one of the most obvious potential factors when comparing states. But is it a factor?
The five leanest states are in the Mountain West (Colorado and Utah) and New England (Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island).
A 2010 study from Germany showed that men who spent a week at an elevation of 8700 feet lost 3.5 pounds. Their metabolisms were faster and their exercise tolerance increased. Most interestingly, these results lasted after their return from the mountains. Further studies are planned.
Could this contribute to Colorado’s rate? The mean elevation of Colorado is 7800 feet. The second leanest state Massachusetts has a mean elevation of 500 feet though.
Before you move to the mountains, this doesn’t explain Massachusetts. Or why Wyoming with the second highest mean elevation didn’t make the top ten leanest states.
What’s the takeaway?
The leanest states all rank high also in physical activity, income, education, and nutrition.
Public health officials are studying how to encourage increasing physical activity, nutrition, and education about obesity. Meanwhile, we can make healthy choices such as increasing fruits, vegetables and physical activity – for our families and ourselves.
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