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Fighting obesity: Utah 7th best in nation, kids are number 1

Published: Sunday, Aug. 18 2013 3:00 p.m. MDT

Josh Hansen uses coconut oil to fry an egg for a sandwich with egg, avocado and tomato for dinner at his house in Bountiful on Friday, Aug. 16, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — On the day of his graduation, Josh Hansen said he "felt like dirt."

The reason? His weight had reached a new high and his graduation gown ripped in the middle of the ceremony.

"When I was 400 pounds, I was numb. I was numb with the emotions, the feelings, the thoughts of the world around me and I couldn't live that way. Nobody can live that way," he said.

Hansen set out to win the battle against weight that had plagued him for most of his life. Over two years he lost 175 pounds and has maintained that weight loss for a year and a half.

He is part of the changing demographic in Utah and the United States, where obesity rates have leveled after rising for the past three decades, according to a report released last week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America's Health.

Utah tied with Montana as the seventh least obese state in the nation, according to the study.

Those with body mass indexes of 30 or higher are considered to be obese, according to the report, which used the National Institute of Health's measurement.

The report, "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future" was made up of data compiled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey and almost 300 other sources and surveys.

Adult obesity rates in Utah rose slightly from 23.8 percent in 2011 to 24.3 percent in 2012 and remained steady nationwide, with the exception of Arkansas, which saw an almost 4 percent jump in rates between 2011 and 2012, according to the study.

Although rates are leveling, adult obesity levels are still historically high. Currently, all states have levels higher than 20 percent; 41 states are at least 25 percent obese and 13 states have rates higher than 30 percent.

In 1980, no states had levels higher than 15 percent. In 1991, none were above 20 percent obese; in 2000, that level had reached 25 percent and in 2007 only one state, Mississippi, had obesity levels higher than 30 percent.

Utah has the lowest rate of childhood obesity, with 11.6 percent of obese 10- to 17-year-olds.

Cut obesity, gain health

Health outcomes in the state are reflecting these low levels of obesity. Utah is tied with Montana with the second-lowest rates of diabetes at 7.2 percent; the second lowest levels of inactivity at 16.6 percent; and the lowest rates of hypertension at 22.9 percent.

Among other significant findings, the study showed that extreme obesity levels have risen in the United States, and that obesity rates are influenced by education, income, age and region.

Those who graduated from college or technical college saw obesity rates around 21.3 percent nationwide, while more than 35 percent of those who did not graduate high school were obese.

Income also influenced rates, with those earning $50,000 or more annual income seeing levels around 25.4 percent, compared to the 31 percent of obese adults 18 or older who make less than $25,000 per year.

Rates varied by age, with an obesity rate of 32.3 percent for those ages 45 to 64 in Utah, compared to a high of 40 percent in Alabama and Louisiana. Those 65 and older in Utah saw rates around 25.6 percent, compared to Louisiana's 30.4 percent. Those ages 18 to 25 in Utah also performed well, at 12.7 percent.

"If we fail to reverse our nation’s obesity epidemic, the current generation of young people may be the first in American history to live sicker and die younger than their parents’ generation," the report said.

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