published Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Tennessee: Obesity rates continue to climb


by Emily Bregel
Audio clip

Jeffrey Levi

Tennessee has broken the 30-percent mark in its rates of adult obesity, joining three other states in which nearly one-third of the adult population is obese, according to a study released Wednesday.

In Tennessee, 36.5 percent of children are overweight or obese, according to the sixth annual obesity report from the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, a nonpartisan group focused on disease prevention.

Georgia has the third-highest population of children who are overweight. The study said 37 percent of its 10- to 17-year-olds are overweight or obese,.

“About one-quarter of health care costs are related to obesity and it’s hurting our economic competitiveness as our workforce has become increasingly unhealthy and less unproductive,” said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, in a Wednesday conference call about the report.

The report used federal and state data to offer an overall picture of the obesity epidemic. It warned of a looming crisis for the younger generation, which the authors said could be the first to live shorter and unhealthier lives than their parents.

John Bilderback is program manager for Step ONE, an obesity prevention program of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.

He said children as young as 5 are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, associated with obesity and previously called “adult-onset” diabetes.

“It’s scary,” he said. “People really need to have a better understanding of the relationship between obesity and Type 2 diabetes. When you look at the highest rates of adult diabetes (in this report), the top 10 states come from the top 14 obesity rankings.”

Tennessee, which ranked fourth for obesity, was the third-worst state for diabetes rates, according to the report.

The prevalence of obesity in America is rapidly spreading. As recently as 1991, not a single state had an obesity rate above 20 percent. Today, almost two-thirds of states have obesity rates above 25 percent, said the report, released in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropy group focused on improving health care.

PDF: Obesity report

ALABAMA OBESITY RATES

* Adult obesity ranking: 2nd

* 31.2 percent of adults are obese

* 36.1 percent of children are overweight or obese

* 29.5 percent of adults are physically inactive

* 33.5 percent of adults have hypertension

HIGHEST OBESITY RATES

1. Mississippi: 32.5 percent

2. Alabama: 31.2 percent

3. West Virginia: 31.1 percent

4. Tennessee: 30.2 percent

5. South Carolina: 29.7 percent

LOWEST OBESITY RATES

51. Colorado: 18.9 percent

50. Massachusetts: 21.2 percent

49. Connecticut: 21.3 percent

48. Rhode Island: 21.7 percent

47. Hawaii: 21.8 percent

At 18.9 percent, Colorado had the lowest adult obesity rate, compared to 32.5 percent in Mississippi, the highest obesity rate.

In the past year, adult obesity rates increased in 23 states and no states recorded a decline. The silver lining to that statistic is, in 2007, 37 states increased obesity rates, said Dr. James Marks, pediatrician and senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“We’re still getting fatter, but maybe a little more slowly than before,” he said.

Health care reform and government policies, such as calorie counts posted on menus and regulation of school lunch menus, can help turn these trends around, said the report’s authors.

A bill to require large chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menu boards failed to get out of a subcommittee in the Tennessee Legislature this year. Georgia is not likely to pass a bill to require menu labeling any time soon, state legislators have said.

But Dr. White said parents and doctors must focus immediately on helping their children lead healthier lives.

“Anything you do education-wise will have a slow impact. ... It’s an individual responsibility” issue, he said.

about Emily Bregel...

Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...

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