New national health report warns of rise in obesity rates

If Connecticut remains on its current trajectory, 46.5 percent of adults in the state will be obese by the year 2030, according to a national report released today.

As the same time, hundreds of thousands of adults will develop diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and other obesity-related diseases. This will drive up Connecticut health costs by 15.7 percent, the 22nd highest increase in the country, according to the report, called “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2012.”

The report, released Tuesday, predicts that if Connecticut continues on its current track, by 2030 obesity could contribute to:

  • 1,014,057 new cases of coronary heart disease and stroke;
  • 412,641 new cases of type 2 diabetes;
  • 941,046 new cases of hypertension;
  • 597,155 new cases of arthritis; and
  • 147,883 new cases of obesity-related cancer in Connecticut.

“The burden will be unbelievable on the health care system and on the employer trying to cover this and on the individual trying to seek health care,” said Christine Greene, a Hartford Hospital spokeswoman on nutritional issues. “But nobody wants to talk about it.”

There is some good news.

If these adults lost just 5 percent of their body mass index by 2030, it would prevent many of these diseases and save $7.3 billion in health care costs in Connecticut, according to the report put out annually by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For a 6-foot-tall man who weighs 200 pounds, that would mean losing 10 pounds.

“We know what to do. We just need to do it,” said Dwayne Proctor, director of childhood obesity programs for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Currently, about one in four adults in Connecticut is obese, according to 2011 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, Connecticut’s current obesity rate of 24.5 percent is relatively low compared with that in other states, ranking 41st out of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Mississippi had the highest obesity rate, at 34.9 percent, while Colorado had the lowest, at 20.7 percent.

“Sure, Connecticut’s doing better than the nation, but the nation’s not doing well,” Proctor said. “Every state now has over 20 percent obesity rates.”

The state Department of Public Health reports that adults with lower household incomes continue to have the highest overall obesity rates.

Greene said she is particularly concerned about obesity in children, some of whom are on track to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

“There are 7- and 8-year-olds out there that weigh 120, 130 pounds,” she said.

How did we get here? American’s obesity epidemic is complex and inter-related. Over time, studies show that portion sizes offered have become much larger than in the past, and foods with the least nutritional value have become more affordable. In addition, there is a more sedentary lifestyle in many areas, Proctor said.

In many places there are fewer sidewalks, discouraging people from walking or biking in busy streets. There are also fewer parks and open areas for recreation, and some communities are not safe, so children stay inside, he said.

The report recommends investing in obesity prevention programs and policies to address the epidemic.

In Connecticut, the state Department of Public Health is working with other state agencies, local health departments, community leaders and residents to launch and support statewide obesity reduction effort. Last year, the department won funding through the Affordable Care Act to transform five Connecticut counties by building infrastructure to increase physical activity and improve access to healthy foods, department spokesman William Gerrish said.

The report suggests fully implementing standards for school meals and updating nutrition standards for snacks and drinks in school. It also suggests making physical education and physical activity a priority in school and supports nutrition in federal food programs. It also encourages people to make full use of preventative health care services.

There is reason for optimism. Many states are setting up fresh food financing initiatives to help public and private concerns secure supermarkets and healthy food markets in “food deserts,” Proctor said.

In some areas, such as Massachusetts, New York City, California, Philadelphia and even Mississippi, childhood obesity has gone down, Proctor said.