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Obesity numbers rise in 28 states

Awareness also grows

First lady Michelle Obama jumps rope Wednesday with students in Washington, D.C. Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move" initiative aims to increase awareness and decrease the rate of obesity. (Associated Press)First lady Michelle Obama jumps rope Wednesday with students in Washington, D.C. Mrs. Obama's “Let’s Move” initiative aims to increase awareness and decrease the rate of obesity. (Associated Press)

The number of obese Americans is steadily climbing, with obesity rates rising in 28 states in the past year.

According to a report released Tuesday titled "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2010," 38 states have obesity rates of more than 25 percent, and almost one-third of American children are considered obese.

These results highlight growing awareness of obesity as a national problem. In 1991, no state in the country had obesity rates higher than 20 percent. Now, only one state — Colorado — has an adult obesity rate of less than 20 percent, barely sliding under the mark at 19.1 percent. Mississippi had the highest obesity rate, weighing in at 33.8 percent.

Campaigns to increase awareness have included first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative to reduce obesity within a generation, but no impact has been registered. Mrs. Obama's spokesman did not return a request for comment.

Obesity is defined by body mass index (BMI), a measurement that relates a person's weight to height. For adults, a BMI of 30 or above is considered obese. The definition varies for children according to age and sex, but a child is considered obese in the 95th percentile on the BMI chart.

Part of that problem is perception, according to a separate poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and American Viewpoint.

Although 80 percent of Americans realized that childhood obesity is a growing issue and more than 12 million American children and adolescents are obese — that's one-third of American children — 84 percent of parents said they thought their own children were at a healthy weight.

That kind of disparity creates an even bigger challenge.

"It tells us the degree to which we still have a problem," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, which writes the annual report with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"This report shows that the country has taken bold steps to address the obesity crisis in recent years, but the nation's response has yet to fully match the magnitude of the problem," Mr. Levi said. "Millions of Americans still face barriers — like the high cost of healthy foods and lack of access to safe places to be physically active — that make healthy choices challenging."

Only one area — the District of Columbia — reported a lower obesity rate in the annual report.

The adult obesity rate in the District fell from 22.3 percent in 2009 to 21.5 percent this year, which puts it 49th among the 51 jurisdictions in the country in terms of percentage of people who are obese.

Mr. Levi said the change could be partly attributed to new recreation centers and pools, as well as increased opportunity for public transportation. Increased opportunity for safe physical activity is essential for fighting obesity, he said.

"We have to make healthy choices easy choices," he explained, adding that concerns over safety also may make people hesitant to hit the trails or send their children out to play.

There are also racial and class gaps in obesity rates, with more blacks and Hispanics being obese in 40 states and the District of Columbia. More than one-third of adults who earned less than $15,000 per year were obese. Among those who made $50,000 or more, 24 percent were obese. Those figures indicate that low weight is more a function in the U.S. of better diet choices than of poverty preventing people from having enough to eat.

It's important to change people's behavior, said David Zvenyach, chief of staff of D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, who co-authored the Healthy Schools Act of 2009.

"The gap between blacks and whites is the highest in the country," Mr. Zvenyach said of his city. "If we continue at the same rate, this generation [of youths] would have a shorter life span than the previous generation."

Part of the obesity problem is the so-called grocery gap — lack of availability of fresh produce and food in areas of major cities such as the District, Mr. Zvenyach said, pointing out that in the city's poorer 7th and 8th wards, there is just one grocery store for every 35,000 residents, compared with 14 grocery stores per 35,000 residents in Ward 3, the wealthiest ward in the District.

Deborah Simmons contributed to this report.

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