SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's obesity rate has doubled in the past 20 years and is set to double yet again in the next 20 years if the average collective body mass index doesn't shrink.
Regardless of the projection, the state stayed the sixth least fat state in the nation, according to the latest F as in Fat obesity report, released Tuesday by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
"We know how to prevent this," said Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health. "We know how to reverse this course if we take the steps that are proven to make a difference."
The percentage of overweight or obese individuals increased in every state since 2010, although specific populations within some states showed some progress.
Utah's rate increased 1 percent in a year, with 24.4 percent of the population currently overweight or obese. In 1995, that rate hovered around 12 percent. Based on the ongoing and current trajectory, it is projected that by 2030, Utah's obesity rate will reach 46.4 percent.
"The rate of obesity is increasing in Utah as fast as it is anywhere else, and it is not reversing," said Patrice Isabella, nutrition coordinator and a dietitian with the state's Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Program. "We can't afford to not take this seriously."
Turning the trend around is also projected to save the state at least $5.8 billion in health care costs and stave off weight-related illnesses and disease, which can sometimes lead to death.
Mississippi continues to hold onto the highest rate, with nearly 35 percent of its population obese. States in the Midwest and the South have higher rates than the rest of the nation, according to the report.
California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Hawaii fare better than the Beehive State, and for the second year, Colorado is the least fat state, with 20.7 percent of its population obese.
"It has to be more than people having the wherewithal to do it for themselves," Isabella said. "We have to have environments where it is easy to make healthy choices."
She said individual responsibility is key to the population downsizing, but results require infrastructure changes to get complete roads, bike routes and accessible trails in every neighborhood, as well as policy changes to get nutrition information available at restaurants and vending machines. Rural and outlying communities also need to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and opportunities for physical activity.
"Choices need to be available to everyone," Isabella said. "It needs to be easy to know how many calories are in your food."
Portion sizes and sugar, fat and salt content should also be apparent, she said.
The report states that if everyone in Utah reduced their body mass index by 5 percent, the state could save more than $2 billion by 2020. In addition, lives would be spared from Type 2 diabetes, obesity-related cancers, coronary heart disease and stroke, hypertension and arthritis.
"We're not talking about total transformation. We're talking about 20 minutes a day making a huge difference in people's health trajectories," Levi said. "And it is not just a health benefit. We know that kids who are physically active perform better in school academically."
Levi and his colleagues push policy changes that impact school lunch programs and physical activity regiments in schools and communities.
Increasing obesity rates across the country are leading to decreased economic productivity, higher death rates and billions spent on rising health care costs, according to the report.
"The future health and wealth of the nation are at stake, and we can't have a thriving nation without healthy people," said Michelle Larkin, a nurse and assistant vice president of Robert Wood Johnson's Health Group.
Behavior changes, Larkin said, are imperative to reducing obesity rates.
"This report paints a stark contrast between two futures for America," she said. "Our economic future depends on our ability to preserve health, prevent disease and reduce health care costs. Investing in prevention today will lead to a healthier, more productive and brighter future for our children and our country."
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