By Maren Stewart
Colorado is officially the leanest state in the nation, with a 19.8 percent adult obesity rate, according to the F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future report released in July based on data collected from 2008 to 2010 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health.
While some Coloradans may consider the ranking a victory for the state, many local health organizations are urging residents to consider all the facts before celebrating. For example, despite its top ranking, Colorado’s obesity rate has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, and today one in five Coloradans are obese and more than half of our population (56.2 percent) is either overweight or obese. Even though Colorado’s current obesity rate may sound positive when compared to Mississippi’s 34.4 percent obesity rate (the worst in the nation), consider that a 19.8 percent obesity rate would have garnered Colorado the title as the most obese state in the nation in 1995 – just over a decade ago.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) also points to the health disparities among the different regions of Colorado and among minority populations. Colorado African-American and Latino populations have obesity rates of 27.9 percent and 24.8 percent, respectively, as compared to Caucasians at 18.3 percent. In addition to the minority obesity rates, children are also at risk. In Colorado, 1 in 4 children are overweight or obese. Without a drastic change, overweight children are going to grow up to be overweight adults.
Generally speaking, the highest rates of obesity in Colorado are in the southeast region of the state, followed with the northeast. In addition to geographic isolation, both regions have corresponding high rates of poverty and unemployment. These factors illustrate the complexity of addressing obesity and the necessity of working in partnerships across the state.
“Take a walk around your office, neighborhood, or grocery store. More than half of the adults you see are either overweight or obese,” says Chris Lindley, Director of CDPHE’s Prevention Services Division. Lindley adds that “we intend to reverse this epidemic threatening our health and welfare by working with advocacy groups, other government agencies, school districts, and citizens across Colorado.”
Many Colorado organizations, including CDPHE, the Colorado Health Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, and LiveWell Colorado and others are partnering to inspire sustainable individual behavior change and improve Coloradans’ access to healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity – two vital strategies to prevent and reduce obesity.
LiveWell Colorado launched a culture change marketing campaign in May, and Coloradans have calculated more than 180,000 “gut checks” at livewellcolorado.org. This online tool helps people identify if they are healthy at their current weight and offers simple ways to learn to make better choices. As more Coloradans become aware that obesity is not someone else’s problem, they are adopting healthier habits and will eventually engage in policy efforts to make environments more conducive to those healthy habits.
Through a collaborative process with many partners, LiveWell Colorado has also developed a series of Policy Blueprints to guide statewide efforts in the areas of Food Access, Worksite Wellness and the Built Environment. These blueprints help to inform efforts and have resulted in legislative successes, such as the creation of Colorado’s first-ever Food Systems Advisory Council focused on improving access to healthy food within Colorado. The Healthy Eating and Active Living (HEAL) Policy Group, comprised of multi-sector partners and stakeholders, recently led the successful passage of a bill which ensures Colorado elementary students get 30 minutes of physical activity each day.
Being dubbed the leanest state in the nation when adult obesity rates did not decline in any state last year, and in fact increased in 16 states, is a dubious honor. However, it is obvious that momentum is already underway to improve Colorado’s health and establish a successful obesity prevention model for other states to emulate.
Maren Stewart, JD, is president and CEO of LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit focused on preventing and reducing obesity in Colorado by promoting healthy eating and active living. Find out more atLiveWellColorado.org.