By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
Mississippians are working to build a leaner future, but the progress isn’t coming fast enough to let the state pass on its dubious honor of fattest in the nation.
An annual obesity report by two public health groups released Thursday found that Mississippi leads the nation with 34.4 percent of the population obese, based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control data gathered between 2007 and 2009. Alabama, West Virginia, Tennessee and Louisiana rounded out the top five.
“It is frustrating, but we’ve had some progress,” said Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Mary Currier. “We just have to continue to work at this. It’s not something that’s going to change overnight.”
Tupelo family physician Dr. Ed Hill, a past president of the American Medical Association, said he is encouraged by the success stories, especially those involving Mississippi schools.
Currier and Hill pointed to several statewide efforts:
– Hundreds of Mississippi schools now have Project Fit exercise equipment through grants from BlueCross BlueShield Foundation of Mississippi.
– The Healthy Schools Act increased the minimum requirements for physical education.
– Hundreds of schools have replaced deep fat fryers with combi-ovens reducing trans-fats in school lunches, many through grants from the Bower Foundation.
– Taking high-calorie drinks and snacks out of vending machines that students can access on school campuses.
“In the long run, they will have dramatic results for the ‘fattest state,'” said Hill, who is an advocate for comprehensive school health education and a member of the State Board of Health.
Tupelo has seen success with its own intiatives to push back against a high-calorie, low-activity culture, said Hank Boerner, co-chairman of the Mayor’s Healthy City Task Force in Tupelo.
The Health on a Shelf program, where Papa V’s and Dodges highlight healthy options for folks in a hurry, is off to a great start, Boerner said. Programs connecting the city schools and parks and billboards emphasizing healthy choices are planting important seeds of awareness. But those efforts will take time to bloom into changes in an entire population.
“We’ve got to change the culture, and we’ve got to change it starting with kids,” “It may take a generation to get back to where we should be.”
Mississippi may be out in front, but the rest of the nation has followed along. Fifteen years ago, no state had an obesity rate over 20 percent. Colorado is now the lone hold out at 19.8 percent – a rate that 15 years ago would have made them the fattest state in the nation.
“When you look at it year by year, the changes are incremental,” says Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, which writes the annual report with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “When you look at it by a generation you see how we got into this problem.”
Other states have seen their obesity rates rise much faster than Mississippi, which has seen a 77 percent rise over 15 years. Out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, 39 states saw their obesity rates rise 80 percent or better over the past 15 years. Seven of those states saw their obesity rates double.
No state decreased its level of obesity, which is defined as a body mass index of 30 or more, but fewer states had statistically significant increases.
“We’re leveling off to some degree at an unacceptably high level,” Levi said.
As in previous years, the study showed that racial and ethnic minorities, along with those who have less education and make less money, have the highest obesity rates. Adult obesity rates for African-Americans topped 40 percent in 15 states, while whites topped 30 percent in only four states. About a third of adults who did not graduate from high school are obese; about a fifth of those who graduated from college are considered obese.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.