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New CDC Report—How Obese Is MA?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


While Massachusetts can be proud of being the #48 most obese state nationwide, local experts think that too many adults in MA are still obese. Photo: tobyotter/flickr.

There was good news in the latest report on obesity from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Massachusetts had the third lowest prevalence of self-reported obesity--22.7 percent--among adults in 2011, based on Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) data.

While the state appears to be comparatively healthy when looking at the rest of the country, the discussion doesn't come to an end there. "We have to realize that 22.7 percent of adults being obese is not a good thing," said Susan Servais, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Council, a nonprofit statewide organization that has been tracking levels of obesity since 1999. The state has been working to address obesity since the early 2000s, but there is still progress to be made, Servais said. Obesity increases risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.

For all states, rates of adult obesity remained high in 2011, with state estimates ranging from 20.7 percent in Colorado (#51, as DC was included in the ranking) to 34.9 percent in Mississippi (#1). No state had a prevalence of adult obesity less than 20 percent, and 12 states had a prevalence of 30 percent or more. The South had the highest prevalence of adult obesity (29.5 percent), followed by the Midwest (29 percent), the Northeast (25.3 percent) and the West (24.3 percent).

Attacking obesity: local approaches

Massachusetts has addressed obesity in a number of ways. Mass in Motion, launched by the MA Department of Public Health, promotes healthy living--eating better and moving more--in 52 of the state's cities and towns, including Worcester and other Central Mass. communities. The initiative has implemented Body Mass Index screening and required healthier eating options at state agencies and facilities, among other programs. The Department of Public Health has also partnered with Blue Cross Blue Shield of MA to launch a Healthy Choices initiative amongst youth.

The Massachusetts Health Council focuses on two "battlefronts": schools and the workplace, Servais said. By addressing obesity in both arenas, "hopefully we will see the rates go down," she said. "Schools have stepped up to the plate." In 2010, the MA Health Council established more nutritious food options at schools, after eight years of working with the legislature. The hope is that children will bring this message home to their families. "This is a huge and enormous step in lowering and controlling obesity in children," Servais said, adding, "Schools can no longer provide children with junk food and sugar drinks." 

Healthy choices in Worcester

There are definitely healthy, nutritious alternatives in Central Mass. for those looking to be healthy. One of several farmer's markets, the Regional Environmental Council (REC) Community Farmers Market, held from June to October in Worcester, at YMCA Family Park on Murray Street behind the YMCA, offers "local, affordable, healthy food from throughout MA," said Terra Oliviera, Development and Communications Coordinator.

Servais also praised organizations that create workplace wellness programs for their employees--this could include a range of decisions to make the workplace healthier, such as eliminating junk food from the cafeteria and vending machines or offering cooking classes during lunch breaks. "It's in the best interest of the workplace to create a healthy workplace environment," she said, noting the high healthcare costs that can result from unhealthy environments. Obesity-related healthcare cost the state $1.8 billion in 2003, according to the CDC.

About the CDC's data: a new baseline

Data from 2011 cannot be compared to previous years, as several updates occurred with BRFSS that impact estimates of state-level adult obesity prevalence. First, there was an overall change in the BRFSS methodology, including the incorporation of cell-phone only households, and a new weighting process. These changes in methodology were made to ensure that the sample better represents the population in each state. Second, to generate more accurate estimates of obesity prevalence, small changes were made to the criteria used to determine which respondents are included in the data analysis. Data collected in 2011 will provide a new baseline for obesity prevalence data collected in subsequent years.

BRFSS is only one of several data sets that monitor rates of obesity in the United States. When considering these other data sets, including the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the obesity epidemic is still a major public health problem.


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