In Colorado, large is the new lean

Today’s skinniest state would have been nation’s fattest in 1995

The leanest state in the nation has set a new, unsettling record.

For the first time, more than 1 in 5 Coloradans is obese, according to a new report by The Colorado Health Foundation released today.

An analysis by the statewide nonprofit news service I-News Network found obesity rates varied widely by region in Colorado.

Residents of Archuleta, La Plata, San Juan, Montezuma and Dolores counties, who are bunched as a whole, are faring slightly better than the state average. In 2009-2010, 18 percent were obese, compared with 20 percent for the state in general. But waistbands here are expanding, too. In 2003-2004, the obesity rate was 15 percent.

In general, when it comes to obesity, Colorado is a tale of two states. On the eastern plains, nearly one in three adults is obese. But in the western part of the state, the rate is half that – about one in six adults is obese.

The Colorado Health Report Card found that Colorado continued to lead the nation with the lowest adult obesity rate, despite rising to 22 percent from 19 percent the previous year.

Statewide, obesity rates have been steadily climbing nationally since 1995.

At that time, Colorado had an obesity rate of only about 1 in 10 adults. Colorado’s obesity rate has doubled since then. The state’s 22 percent obesity rate today would have led the nation in 1995.

Mikel Love at Peak Wellness and Nutrition in Durango doesn’t think there’s a single reason for the disquieting trend.

“We’re known for being active, which keeps us lean and mean,” Love said. “But we eat a lot of processed foods, which are calorie dense.

“There’s probably an economic factor – the advertising budgets for processed food makers are bigger than those of health-food suppliers,” Love said.

Love would like to see more promotion of exercise for the older set. Mountain climbers and kayakers who tend to be younger stay in shape, she said.

Amita Nathwani, executive director of Healthy Lifestyle La Plata, also called for more education.

“Some people don’t even know what obese or overweight means,” Nathwani said. “They’re not familiar with measures such as BMI (body mass index that compares height to weight).

“In Southwest Colorado people are lean through recreation, but it’s not built into their lifestyle,” Nathwani said. “There are not enough opportunities to use alternative transportation such as bicycles or walking.”

Jess Kelley at Durango Nutrition said sugar is a major culprit for the climbing obesity rate. She pointed to the grams of sugar in food, which often far exceed the recommended amounts for men, women and children – 36, 20 and 12, respectively, she said.

An emerging concern among nutritionists, Kelley said, is the possible role of chemicals such as bisphenol-A that can disrupt metabolism, the basic functioning of the cells.

Paying attention to regional obesity variations can help identify ways to lower obesity rates, said Tracy Faigin Boyle, communications vice president for LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit group that develops anti-obesity programs.

The availability of fresh vegetables and fruits, exercise opportunities and even infrastructure such as sidewalks vary dramatically by neighborhood, Boyle said. That’s why anti-obesity efforts must be tailored to each community.

“The overall environment is less and less conducive to making healthy choices,” Boyle said.

The health foundation report, called the “Colorado Health Report Card,” found that the state’s child obesity rate is climbing even faster than the adult rate.

Five years ago, 9.9 percent of Colorado children were obese. In the last national survey in 2009, that figure had risen to 14.2 percent. In 2007, Colorado had the third lowest child obesity rate in the U.S. In the most recent survey, the state ranks 23rd.

Dr. James Hill, executive director of the Colorado Center for Health and Wellness, said the U.S. and Colorado face an uphill battle to reverse the obesity rates, given the current American lifestyles.

“There are so many things moving in the wrong direction, and we’re literally fighting back with hats and T-shirts,” Hill said.

The highest obesity rates were on the Eastern Plains where almost 30 percent of the adults were obese.

Boyle said rural communities are poorer and tend to have lower education levels, which correlate with high obesity levels.

“Strangely, the rural communities eat the least fruits and vegetables,” she said.

The lowest percentages – between 15 and 16 percent – were on the Western Slope along the Interstate 70 corridor, home to the state’s recreational areas.

“I would argue that is probably self-selection,” Hill said. “People who chose to live in those places are people who value that lifestyle.”

The increase is a wake-up call for Colorado, as it has lost its status as the only state in the U.S. with an obesity rate of less than 20 percent, said Charles Reyman, vice president of communications for The Colorado Health Foundation.

“We no longer hold that distinction,” Reyman said.

Herald Staff Writer Dale Rodebaugh contributed to this report.

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