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Obesity rises across US, but MA 4th thinnest state

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Massachusetts has one of the lowest obesity rates in the nation even as waistlines are continuing to expand across the Bay State, according to a new report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

At 22.3 percent, the Commonwealth’s obesity rate is the fourth lowest in the country and exceeds only Connecticut, whose rate stands at 21.8 percent, the District of Columbia at 21.7 percent and Colorado at 19.8 percent. Southern states rank among the most obese, with Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky and Oklahoma all topping 31 percent.

Like other states with low obesity rates, Massachusetts also ranks highly for adult fruit and vegetable consumption.

 But the report isn’t all good news for the Commonwealth.

 Despite Massachusetts’ relatively low obesity rate, residents have still experienced a dramatic weight gain in the past 15 years, the report shows. The obesity rate in the Commonwealth has almost doubled since 1995, when just 11.6 percent of adults were obese. And the increase has not slowed — even in the past two consecutive years, the obesity rate has risen significantly. Alongside increased body weight, rates of diabetes and hypertension — chronic diseases related to obesity — are also on the rise.

Former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher writes in the report that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 110,000 Americans are killed each year by obesity.

“Not only that: obesity plays a role in many millions of cases of chronic illness, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis and cancer,” he says. “Even when they don’t result in death, these ailments can make life painful and difficult for patients and their families.”

Even with this sharp increase since the mid-1990s, Massachusetts retained one of the lowest obesity rates in the country because people in all states have become more obese. According to the report, 20 years ago, not a single state in the country had an obesity rate higher than 15 percent. Today, no state boasts of a rate that low.

“Today, the state with the lowest obesity rate would have had the highest rate in 1995,” Executive Director of the Trust for America’s Health Jeff Levi said in a statement. “There was a clear tipping point in our national weight gain over the last twenty years, and we can’t afford to ignore the impact obesity has on our health and corresponding health care spending.”

 In the past year, no state experienced declining obesity.

In addition to rising obesity rates, the report also exposes racial disparities in Massachusetts. Obesity is considerably more prevalent among minority adults — while 21.8 percent of whites are obese, 30.5 percent of blacks and 29.1 percent of Latinos are. These racial disparities are even more pronounced among women. White, black and Latino men are nearly proportionally obese, but 18.5 percent of white women are obese, while 33.4 percent of black women, and 28.1 percent of Latino women are.

This racial disparity also persists throughout the country. While black obesity rates top 30 percent in 42 states and the District of Columbia, white obesity rates top 30 percent in just four states.

In addition to race, the report also shows the correlation between obesity and socioeconomic background — individuals with lower incomes and less education have higher obesity rates than individuals with higher incomes and more education.

Despite the poor health indicators in the Commonwealth, the report also shows that Massachusetts is making considerable strides to curb the obesity epidemic. The Commonwealth has implemented laws for schools including nutritional standards for food, physical education requirements, health education requirements, the collection of health information from students, and a farm-to-school program.

The Commonwealth has also passed menu labeling laws and a “complete the streets” policy that encourages bikers and pedestrians to share the roads with cars. Although Mayor Thomas M. Menino recently implemented a policy that requires city departments to phase out the sale of soda — a progressive step highlighted in the report — the Commonwealth has not implemented a soda tax, a move 35 other states have undertaken in recent years.

Massachusetts has also received a number of grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund local obesity prevention measures, and Boston has been recognized for its achievements in installing community gardens in low-income neighborhoods.

The report was sure to emphasize the importance of state and federal policy in combating the obesity epidemic, not just individual behavior.

“We must realize that our predicament cannot be solved through individual action alone,” Satcher wrote in the report. “Both the public and private sector must pitch in to ensure that we live in a society where gaining weight becomes more difficult and maintaining a healthy weight becomes easier.”

“The information in this report should spur us all — individuals and policymakers alike — to redouble our efforts to reverse this debilitating and costly epidemic,” President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Risa Lavizzo-Mourey added. “Changing policies is an important way to provide children and families with vital resources and opportunities to make healthier choices easier in their day-to-day lives.”

 “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future, 2011” was produced by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The report, which explores the prevalence and impact of obesity in America, has been published annually for the past five years. A full copy of the report can be found at: http://healthyamericans.org/report/88/.