Opinion

Confront rising obesity

America is getting fatter. And if we don't figure out a way to reverse that trend, we could face a sharp increase in obesity-related diseases for generations to come.

The results of an annual survey by the Trust for America's Health, a research group that focuses on disease prevention, indicated that obesity rates continued to climb in 31 states with no state showing a decline. Mississippi had the dubious distinction of being the fattest state, with 30.6 percent of its residents qualifying as obese, while Colorado, for the second straight year, was leanest with an obesity rate of 17.6 percent.

Southern states in general fared poorly in the survey. In addition to Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas were atop the list of states with the highest rates of obesity.

South Carolina tied with Tennessee with a 27.8 percent obesity rating. That is a 1.6 percentage point increase from 2006, when the state tied with Indiana for eighth in the nation.

This year's report also looked at obesity rates among children ages 10 to 17. The Palmetto State ranked seventh highest at 18.9 percent. Washington, D.C., had the highest rate of child obesity in the nation, with 22.8 percent. Eight of the 10 states with the highest child obesity rates were in the South.

Mississippi is the first state to top 30 percent in adult obesity. While during the 1990s no state had rates of 25 percent or higher, this year 19 states did. Massachusetts and Colorado were the only two states with less than one-fifth of the population classified as obese.

Reversing the steady fattening of America won't be easy. A variety of factors contribute to increasing obesity, and no magic bullet will provide a cure.

Socio-economic standing and cultural tradition help explain why obesity is so prevalent in the South. Poor families tend to buy food that's inexpensive, high in calories and low in nutrition. And, over generations, Southerners have developed a keen taste for fried food.

The South also no longer is as rural as it once was, and Southerners no longer burn up calories working on the farm or in textile mills as they once did. This report states that one in every four adults in South Carolina reports getting no physical activity.

What's the antidote? Obviously, people have to start eating less and exercising more. But, as this report suggests, Americans don't appear inclined to do that.

Officials with Trust for America's Health stress that a national strategy, including economic incentives, is needed to make healthy food more accessible and change the nation's eating habits. And they say children especially must be targeted.

Suggestions include:

• Expanding the Agricultural Department's Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack program, which was used by only 400 schools in 14 states last year.

• Restricting the sale of junk food in schools.

• Increasing food stamp benefits so recipients can afford fruits and vegetables, and allowing use of food stamp electronic transfer cards at farmers markets.

• Offering financial incentives to create more farmers markets.

The government also could reduce subsidies for corn, which could reduce the use of high fructose corn syrup in many products. Corn syrup now serves as a low-cost sweetener that contributes to diabetes in the same way sugar does.

The nation also must encourage its children to exercise more. That may entail a return to mandatory physical education classes at school.

The continuing rise in obesity is nothing less than a life-threatening epidemic. If this were a flu outbreak or a deadly bird virus spreading among the population, Americans would demand that the nation mobilize to meet the threat.

Most states with the highest obesity rates are in the South, according to new report.

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