State of obesity: Why health & weight issues vary among regions


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Anyone who has traveled outside their own state knows that America is a land of differences. Different accents, different geographic features, different attitudes toward life. Health and weight issues differ too — from state to state and region to region. 

States with the highest obesity rates are by and large concentrated in the South, with West Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama rounding out the top five, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. Not surprisingly, these states also have large percentages of residents with high blood pressure and diabetes. 

Conversely, states in the Northeast and Western regions of the country generally record the lowest obesity rates. In 2012, Colorado, Massachusetts, Montana, Connecticut and California made the top five, with Colorado clocking in at an impressive 18.7% obesity rate — significantly lower than the national average of 26.2%. 

So what gives?

Food deserts — areas where people don’t have access to fresh produce and healthy foods — mean more of a reliance on packaged goods and fast food. They’re found across the country, in both urban and rural areas, and usually correlate with lower income levels. The reason is simple: Fruits and veggies are more expensive, so no one’s going to sell them if people can’t afford them. And — you guessed it — Southern states have the nation’s lowest income levels, with Northeastern and Western states clocking in at the highest income levels.

But eating well isn’t the whole battle. Physical activity plays a big role in preventing weight and health issues. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top five most obese states reported significantly lower levels of physically active adults than the states with the lowest obesity rates. We surmise that the prevalence of outdoor activities, such as skiing and mountain biking, in states like Colorado contributes to residents’ activity levels. 

To learn more about the critical food and health issues sweeping the country, check out two of our current favorite resources: the documentary “A Place at the Table,” and the book “Salt Sugar Fat” by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss.