WASHINGTON, DC -- Tennessee has joined Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia as four states that have an adult obesity rate of 30 percent or higher, according to the “F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America 2009” report, which was released earlier this month.

For the fifth year in a row, Mississippi has the highest rate of adult obesity at 32.5 percent, followed by Alabama (31.2 percent), West Virginia (31.1 percent) and Tennessee (30.2 percent). Eight of the 10 states with the highest percentage of obese adults are in the South, according to the sixth annual report, which was released by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Our health care costs have grown along with our waist lines,” says Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health. “The obesity epidemic is a big contributor to the skyrocketing health care costs in the United States. How are we going to compete with the rest of the world if our economy and work force are weighed down by bad health?”

For the sixth consecutive year, Colorado has the lowest adult obesity rate (18.9 percent), and for the third consecutive year, it is the only state with a rate below 20 percent. Colorado’s rate, however, has increased steadily each year since the 2004 report, when Colorado had a 16 percent rate.

Adult obesity rates increased in 23 states and did not decrease in any state in the past year, according to the report. Sixteen states experienced an increase for the second year in a row, and 11 states had an increase for the third consecutive year. Two-thirds of American adults are either obese or overweight.

Also, the percentage of obese or overweight children (ages 10 to 17) is at or above 30 percent in 30 states. Mississippi has the highest rate of obese and overweight children at 44.4 percent. Minnesota and Utah tied for the lowest rate at 23.1 percent. Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled since 1980.

“Reversing the childhood obesity epidemic is a critical ingredient for delivering a healthier population and making health reform work,” says Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “If we can prevent the current generation of young people from developing the serious and costly chronic conditions related to obesity, we can not only improve health and quality of life, but we can also save billions of dollars and make our health care systems more efficient and sustainable.”

Other findings from the “F as in Fat: 2009” report include:

  • The current economic crisis could exacerbate the obesity epidemic. Food prices, particularly for more nutritious foods, are expected to rise, making it more difficult for families to eat healthy foods. At the same time, safety-net programs and services are becoming increasingly overextended as the numbers of unemployed, uninsured and underinsured continue to grow. In addition, because of the strain of the recession, rates of depression, anxiety and stress, which are linked to obesity for many individuals, also are increasing.
  • Nineteen states now have nutritional standards for school lunches, breakfasts and snacks that are stricter than current USDA requirements. Five years ago, only four states had legislation requiring stricter standards.
  • Twenty-seven states have nutritional standards for competitive foods sold a la carte, in vending machines, in school stores or in school bake sales. Five years ago, only six states had nutritional standards for competitive foods.
  • Twenty states have passed requirements for body mass index (BMI) screenings of children and adolescents or have passed legislation requiring other forms of weight-related assessments in schools. Five years ago, only four states had passed screening requirements.
  • A recent analysis commissioned by Trust for America’s Health found that the Baby Boomer generation has a higher rate of obesity compared with previous generations. As the Baby Boomer generation ages, obesity-related costs to Medicare and Medicaid are likely to grow significantly because of the large number of people in this population and its high rate of obesity. And, as Baby Boomers become Medicare-eligible, the percentage of obese adults age 65 and older could increase significantly. Estimates of the increase in percentage of obese adults range from 5.2 percent in New York to 16.3 percent in Alabama.

Recommendations outlined in the report for addressing obesity within health reform include:

  • Ensuring every adult and child has access to coverage for preventive medical services, including nutrition and obesity counseling and screening for obesity-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes.
  • Increasing the number of programs available in communities, schools and child care settings that help make nutritious foods more affordable and accessible. And also providing safe and healthy places for people to engage in physical activity.
  • Reducing Medicare expenditures by promoting proven programs that improve nutrition and increase physical activity among adults ages 55 to 64.

States with the highest adult obesity ranking:

1. Mississippi (32.5 percent)
2. Alabama (31.2 percent)
3. West Virginia (31.1 percent)
4. Tennessee (30.2 percent)
5. South Carolina (29.7 percent)
6. Oklahoma (29.5 percent)
7. Kentucky (29 percent)
8. Louisiana (28.9 percent)
9. Michigan (28.8 percent)
10. (tie) Arkansas and Ohio (28.6 percent)

States with the highest rate of obese and overweight children:

1. Mississippi (44.4 percent)
2. Arkansas (37.5 percent)
3. Georgia (37.3 percent)
4. Kentucky (37.1 percent)
5. Tennessee (36.5 percent)
6. Alabama (36.1 percent)
7. Louisiana (35.9 percent)
8. West Virginia (35.5 percent)
9. District of Columbia (35.4 percent)
10. Illinois (34.9 percent)