Maine still fattest state in New England

Posted July 01, 2009, at 8:55 p.m.

Like a “spare tire” of unwanted belly fat, the rate of adult obesity in Maine continues to expand. According to the 2009 report “F as in Fat,” released Wednesday by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, 24.7 percent of Maine adults are clinically obese compared with 23.7 percent in last year’s report.

The report surveys obesity data in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Maine dropped from the 34th most obese state to the 35th, but it retains the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of adult obesity in New England.

Maine’s top public health official said Wednesday that Maine is on the right track toward reducing obesity in adults and children, but cautioned that it will take time to turn the numbers around.

“The obesity epidemic has been decades in the making,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “We have to take the long view.”

Two-thirds of American adults are now either obese or overweight, according to the report.

Public health officials discuss obesity using the term “body mass index” — a proportion of weight to height.

Obesity is defined as having a body mass index of more than 30. People with a BMI between 25 and 30 are considered overweight.

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Obesity increased in 23 states and did not decrease in any states, according to the report, which is based on data from 2006, 2007 and 2008. According to this year’s report, New Hampshire ranks 39th in adult obesity, Vermont 46th, Rhode Island 48th, Connecticut 49th and Massachusetts 50th. The fattest state was Mississippi with a 32.5 percent of adult obesity. The leanest was Colorado, with an adult obesity rate of just 18.9 percent.

The rate of obese and overweight children is at or above 30 percent in 30 states.

The study shows that 28.2 percent of Maine youths from 10 to 17 years old are overweight or obese, with less than one third of youths participating in daily vigorous physical activity.

The prevalence of obesity in Mainers 65 and older has almost doubled over the past 20 years, from 9.7 percent in 1985-1987 to 19 percent in 2005-2007, according to the report.

Gov. John Baldacci recently celebrated the signing of three new state laws aimed at bucking the obesity trend. One requires chain restaurants operating in Maine to prominently post the calorie content of their foods. The other two laws address obesity through Maine schools, one by encouraging the collection of students’ body mass index data to be used for public health research, and the other by encouraging schools to expand physical education programming.

Mills said public policy can successfully change the “culture of obesity.” She compared anti-obesity legislation in Maine to recent laws that have restricted smoking in public places and personal vehicles, “making it easier to choose a smoke-free lifestyle.”

“Five years ago, the public would have been outraged to think of taking a child’s BMI in school,” she said. But now, public awareness has grown, along with the recognition that measuring and tracking what public health officials consider an epidemic is essential to combating it.

“If you don’t measure the problem, then you don’t know you have a problem,” Mills said.

Mills said Americans have gotten used to looking at overweight people. Many parents think their children are at a normal weight when in fact they are overweight, she said, and some think their healthy-weight kids are too thin.

“We’ve gotten so used to seeing people obese and overweight, we don’t know what normal looks like anymore,” she said.

Mills said public policy also must encourage physical activity, not just in schools but within entire communities, as another important way to prevent and combat obesity.

“You can’t just tell people to exercise more,” she said. For example, many areas in Maine lack sidewalks, bike lanes or broad shoulders along roadways, making it tough for residents to get out and exercise safely, she said.

The Maine CDC works with Maine communities and other public health groups to support municipal planning that encourages physical activity.

Additionally, Mills pointed out, the Obama administration has shown interest in making changes to the federal Food Stamp program — recently renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — in order to promote the purchase of more healthful food products.

Obesity is found at all income levels but is prevalent in lower-income brackets. Maine’s former commissioner of health and human services, Kevin Concannon, now oversees several federally funded nutrition programs including SNAP, the school lunch program and the Women, Infants and Children program.

On the Web: http://healthyamericans.org

Body Mass Index calculator:

www.presidentschallenge.org/tools_to_help/bmi.aspx

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