By Jo-Anne MacKenzie
---- — Congratulations, America. On average, residents aren’t tipping the scales at quite such an alarming increase.
But it’s not all good news.
Every state in the country — and in the District of Columbia — reports adult obesity rates above 20 percent, according to a recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Obesity rates top 30 percent in 13 states.
New England weighs in with lower obesity rates than other parts of the country, particularly than the South and Midwest.
But New Englanders, too, should hold off before celebrating with a slice of pie or double-scoop cone.
Massachusetts’ residents are comparatively svelte, ranking 49th of 51 for adult obesity. But even in the Bay State, 22.9 percent of adults are obese.
In New Hampshire, tied for 28th place, 27.3 percent of adults are obese.
The numbers in the report, “F as in Fat,” are staggering and of great concern to health officials, insurers and employers.
Obesity costs a lot of money — in health-care costs, individuals’ health risks, decreased productivity, and occupational and safety expenses.
The report follows some better news earlier in the month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported some progress in reducing childhood obesity. Those rates declined slightly in 19 states, including New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Still, about one in every eight American preschoolers is obese. Children who are overweight as preschoolers are about five times as likely to become overweight adults, according to the CDC.
That’s a really significant problem in Lawrence, with the highest childhood obesity rate in Massachusetts — 45 percent.
“We deal with adults, but we also make sure we stress, and have programs in place, that it’s not just them, it’s the family,” said Lisa Luz, program coordinator at Lawrence General Hospital’s Weight Management and Bariatric Center. “It’s not just treating the person, it’s treating the whole family.”
The program, which started in January, targets adults. But, as Luz said, it takes the whole family to make lifestyle changes that will affect every member.
Urban areas come with their own sets of challenges, she said. Those challenges include fewer opportunities for outdoor activity, less access to fresh food, even limited access to supermarkets, which tend to carry healthier choices than corner stores.
There are socio-economic factors, too, she said.
Obesity rates are highest for people with the least amount of education and with the lowest incomes, according to the report. Obesity rates for adults who did not complete high school are above 35 percent. Adults earning less than $25,000 a year weigh more than their wealthier neighbors; more than 31 percent of that low-income population is obese.
“There’s an environmental cascade of things that contribute to someone’s obesity,” Luz said.
Being overweight leads to all kinds of health issues, she said, including diabetes, sleep apnea, blood pressure, arthritis, infertility, a higher risk of certain types of cancer. Obese individuals spend more money on clothing, she said, and have mobility issues. That includes worrying about whether they can fit into an airplane seat, bus, even a public bathroom.
Change involves education, access to healthier food and increased physical activity, Luz said.
Education and activity are key
New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services is fighting back. The N.H. Obesity Prevention Program aims to promote nutritional education, increase physical activity, improve the quality of food in New Hampshire school cafeterias and homes, and get more fresh produce on residents’ plates.
The state is investing in preventative services and behavior modification to help residents lose weight, according to Margaret Murphy, section administrator for Healthy Eating and Physical Activity within the Department of Health and Human Services.
She said the fact New Hampshire was one of the states to see a decrease in childhood obesity was “huge.”
“But we do know it’s much harder to influence adult behavior changes,” she said. “We know trying to reach individuals one by one on an adult level is not where the success will be. The success will be by changing the environment.”
That means working with communities to establish walking and bike trails and improving access to healthier food. That means encouraging more farmers markets and even working with smaller stores, where processed food often reigns, to encourage them to stock more fresh produce.
Murphy is optimistic.
“I think we all have to be optimistic and move in that direction,” she said. “Control and reduction of obesity is one of the biggest things we can do.”
Sue Olson, a registered dietician and program director at Derry Medical Center, agrees.
“Seven of 10 Americans are overweight,” she said. “We all have to practice and learn behaviors and skills.”
She works in the medical center’s nutrition and diabetes center, with an emphasis on medically supervised weight loss.
“It always boils down to behavior and environment,” she said. “Kids are overweight, but you can’t treat the kid without treating the adult. You have to be around other people on board with what you want to do.”
No gender divide in obesity rates
Overweight individuals have plenty of company, according to the report.
Men are packing on the pounds faster than women, and have been over the past decade. That has resulted in gender equalization when it comes to obesity — equal percentages of men and women now weigh too much.
While adult obesity levels may be stabilizing — only Arkansas saw in increase from 2011 to 2012 — extreme obesity is on the rise, the report finds. Adults with a body mass index of 40 or higher is now at 6.3 percent of the population. A person with a BMI of 25 or higher is considered overweight, according to the CDC.
A look at obesity trends in New Hampshire make it clear why state public health officials are concerned. In 1995, just 12.9 percent of state residents were obese, good for a 40th-place ranking. By 2003, 20.2 percent of New Hampshire residents were obese, moving the state up to 38th place. It’s been uphill ever since.
The percentages may be lower in the Bay State, but the trend is the same. In 1995, just 11.6 percent of the state’s adults were obese, 48th in the country. By 2003, the percentage of obese adults had climbed to 16.8 percent.