A new national obesity report was released this week, and as report cards go, things aren't looking that great for America. The latest data, from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, show that seven states are now reporting adult obesity rates above 35 percent, up from five states last year.
Oprah may be looking fit and trim these days -- the rest of us, not so much. No state had a decrease in obesity rates, and Illinois is still lodged mid-list at No. 27, with 31 percent of adults suffering from obesity.
According to TFAH, obesity is the nation's most pervasive public health crisis, resulting in an estimated $149 billion annually in health care costs and another $66 billion in lost productivity costs, such as workplace absenteeism.
"Obesity is a major challenge in nearly every state, and our role as public health leaders is to ensure we're doing everything we can to address it," said John Wiesman, president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Wiesman and others whose job it is to raise the alarm on this problem say there are measures that can successfully combat the crisis. The trouble is those measures are not equally applied; according to the latest report, your chances of being obese can be predicted by one factor -- your ZIP code.
Viewed this way, obesity numbers seem to reinforce perceptions about places to an almost comic degree. Colorado, an outdoorsy state with a lifestyle that seems to emphasize health and physical activity: lowest obesity rates in the nation, with a relatively svelte 22 percent incidence in adults. Iowa, famed for a state fair that relies heavily on art made from butter: still heavy, at 36 percent.
Not for nothing did Oprah, long known for her battles with weight, abandon sturdier Chicago to relocate in oh-so-slender California (with a mere 25 percent obesity rate.) But the figures have an edge that goes beyond lifestyle.
Obesity, tragically, is yet another story of haves and have-nots. A 2008 study by the Sinai Urban Health Institute found that, in Chicago, obesity rates were three times higher in a Hispanic community on the West Side and five times higher in African-American communities on the South Side than in a predominantly white neighborhood on the North Side.
Many factors influence the data, including the lack of safe spaces to exercise and the availability of healthy food choices in the affected neighborhoods, representing not just a food justice issue, but major health care inequity for those communities.
"The good news is that there is growing evidence that certain prevention programs can reverse these trends," said John Auerbach, president and CEO of Trust for America's Health. Those programs, detailed in a list of 40 recommended actions included with the report data, include 60 minutes of mandated physical education time in schools, healthy standards for school meals and snacks, revamped dietary guidelines for all Americans, Medicare coverage for anti-obesity training, and the elimination of ads for unhealthy foods and drinks aimed at children. But, Auerbach cautions, "we won't see meaningful declines in state and national obesity rates until they are implemented throughout the nation and receive sustained support."