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Alabama ranks 3rd in national obesity

From staff, AP reports

Alabama's waist size continued to grow, and though it's not as wide as Mississippi's or West Virginia's, it's still one of the largest in the nation.

That's according to the most recent obesity study released by the Trust for America's Health, a research group that focuses on disease prevention.

The report was no surprise to Decatur health professionals, who say they see the growing trend in their medical offices every day.

"We more than doubled our volume in the past year," said Dr. Jay Suggs, bariatric surgeon at Parkway Medical Center's Surgical Weight Loss Center.

The center has seen "significant" increases in patients seeking weight-loss surgery, adjustable gastric banding and, not surprisingly, patients with obesity-related sicknesses such as diabetes, he said.

"I would say that now probably 80 percent of my patients either have diabetes or high blood pressure or sleep apnea or all of those things, which is probably up from about 50 to 60 percent five years ago when I started doing this," Dr. Suggs said.

Cravens Gibbs, nursing supervisor at the Morgan County Health Department, said the majority of the clinic's patients are either overweight or obese.

"We started doing BMIs (Body Mass Indexes), and it's just incredible," she said. "You know they look heavy, but when you do the BMI you're like, 'Oh my!' "

Alabama's obesity rate was 29.4 percent, up from 28.7 last year. The state's juvenile obesity rate, which the Trust for America's Health reported for the first time, was 16.7 percent; ranking 11th nationally.

Mississippi had the highest rate and became the first state to crack the 30 percent barrier for adults considered to be obese, the Trust for America's Health reported. Colorado continued its reign as the leanest state, with an obesity rate projected at 17.6 percent. Utah had the lowest percentage of overweight youth — 8.5 percent.

Health officials say the latest state rankings provide evidence that the nation has a public health crisis on its hands.

"Unfortunately, we're treating it like a mere inconvenience instead of the emergency that it is," said Dr. James Marks, senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropy devoted to improving health care.

Dr. Suggs said obesity is a disease of "Western Civilization" in that people eat too much, especially unhealthy foods, and exercise too little. States need to do more to encourage a change from this lifestyle, he added, citing his disappointment with schools allowing soda machines in cafeterias and putting less emphasis on physical education.

"We've paid a lot of attention to smoking cessation, and anti-smoking campaigns. Well now it's time to pay attention to obesity," Dr. Suggs said. "In a few years, obesity may overtake smoking as the leading cause of death."

Officials at the Trust for America's Health advocate for the government to play a larger role in preventing obesity. People who are overweight are at an increased risk for diabetes, heart problems and other chronic diseases that contribute to greater health care costs.

"It's one of those issues where everyone believes this is an epidemic, but it's not getting the level of political and policymaker attention that it ought to," said Jeffrey Levi, the organization's executive director.

At the same time, many believe weight is a personal choice and responsibility. Levi doesn't dispute that notion, but he said society can help people make good choices.

"If we want kids to eat healthier food, we have to invest the money for school nutrition programs so that school lunches are healthier," he said. "If we want people to be more physically active, then there have to be safe places to be active. That's not just a class issue. We've designed suburban communities where there are no sidewalks for anybody to go out and take a walk."

Gibbs said the county health clinic counsels obese people and gives ideas to increase their exercise and lower calories.

"But you know it's got to come from within," she said.

Dr. Suggs said only about 10 percent of people who try to lose weight through dieting can keep a significant amount off for a long time.

"In other words, 90 percent of dieters fail," he said.

To measure obesity rates, Trust for America's Health compares data from 2003-2005 with 2004-2006. It combines data from three years to improve the accuracy of projections. The data come from a survey of height and weight taken over the telephone. Because the information comes from a personal estimate, some believe it is conservative.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study last year noting a national obesity rate of about 32 percent — a higher rate than was cited for any of the states in the Trust for America's Health's report. The CDC's estimate came from weighing people rather than relying on telephone interviews, officials explained.

Generally, anyone with a body mass index greater than 30 is considered obese. The index is a ratio that takes into account height and weight. The overweight range is 25 to 29.9. Normal is 18.5 to 24.9. People with a large amount of lean muscle mass, such as athletes, can show a large body mass index without having an unhealthy level of fat.

A lack of exercise is a huge factor in obesity rates. The CDC found last year that more than 22 percent of Americans did not engage in any physical activity in the past month. The percentage is greater than 30 percent in four states: Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Meanwhile, Minnesotans led the way when it came to exercise. An estimated 15.4 percent of the state's residents did not engage an any physical exercise — the best rate in the nation. Still, the state ranked 28th overall when it came to the percentage of obese adults.

Another factor in obesity rates is poverty. The five poorest states were all in the top 10 when it came to obesity rates. An exception to that rule was the District of Columbia and New Mexico. Both had high poverty rates, but also one of the better obesity rates among adults.

Officials said the report is not designed to stigmatize states with high obesity rates but to stir them into action.

"These are the states where the urgency is the greatest. They need not to wait for others to lead. They need to become the leaders," Marks said. "It's the only way that they can restore the health of their children and their families. It's the only way that they can improve their economic competitiveness."

On the Net

To view the Trust for America’s Health recent obesity study visit www.healthyamericans.org

To see if you’re obese, take the Body Mass Index test by visiting www.consumer.gov/weightloss/bmi.htm.

Copyright 2005 THE DECATUR DAILY. All rights reserved.
AP contributed to this report.

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