August 20, 2013

Maine's obesity rate levels off, but its rank worsens

By Leslie Bridgers
Staff Writer

Maine is moving up in the national ranking for an undesirable attribute: Obesity.

The state's adult obesity rate of 28.4 percent last year made it the 23rd most obese state, up from 25th a year earlier.

But Maine's rate of obesity is slowing, according to a report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The rise from 2011, when the rate was 27.8 percent, was not considered statistically significant, according to the report.

Maine is the most obese state in New England, the report says, followed by New Hampshire, at 28th; Rhode Island, 36th; Connecticut, 39th; Vermont, 46th; and Massachusetts, 49th.

Colorado has the lowest rate, 20.9 percent.

According to the report, called "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2013," obesity rates rose in 16 states in 2011, in 37 states in 2010, and in all but one state in 2005.

"While stable rates of adult obesity may signal prevention efforts are starting to yield some results, the rates remain extremely high," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, in a prepared statement.

Obesity is determined by calculating body mass index, a ratio of weight to height.

Anyone with an index of 30 or higher is considered obese. A body mass index of 25 or higher is considered overweight. By that measure, a 5-foot, 9-inch person is considered overweight at 169 pounds and obese at 203 pounds.

Obesity rates are over 30 percent in 13 states, the report says. In 2000, no state had an obesity rate over 25 percent. And in 1980, every state's obesity rate was below 15 percent.

"We're pleased to see them level off," said Bethany Sanborn, program manager for chronic disease prevention in Portland's Public Health Division. "Now, we need to reverse that trend."

Sanborn said the city has been working for a couple of years to help change people's habits and "make the healthy choice the easy choice."

Adding salad bars at all schools in the city, working with restaurants to list nutrition information on their menus and adopting a policy to make streets easier to use for pedestrians and bicyclists are among the changes that have been made, she said.

The report says Pennsylvania is the only state more obese than Maine that is not in the South or Midwest, where the highest obesity rates are concentrated.

Mississippi, which had been the most obese state since 2004, was edged out in the latest study by Louisiana, where the obesity rate is 34.7 percent.

Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed to Maine's poverty level and lack of access to fresh and inexpensive fruits and vegetables as reasons for the ranking.

"It's a cultural thing," she said.

Pinette said programs like Let's Go!, which promotes healthy eating and regular physical activity for children, are aimed at reversing that trend.

"It's one step at a time, one child and one person at a time," she said.

Amy McLaughlin, who grew up in Old Town, and Andrew Bisbing, who grew up in Yarmouth, said they believe there's a lack of education about nutrition in Maine's schools. They believe that, along with the poverty level, could contribute to Maine's high obesity rate.

Both are in their 20s and living in Portland. As they walked to the gym on Monday, both said they try to exercise at least five times a week.

Maine men, with a rate of 30.2 percent, are more obese than Maine women, whose rate is 26.6 percent, the report says. The most obese age group is those who are 45 to 64, with a rate of 32.5 percent. Young adults, age 18 to 25, are the least obese, with a rate of 14.9 percent.

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