In a nation of widening waist bands and shrinking candy bars, Colorado's obese population is going the way of King Size Snickers. The results from a new Gallup-Healthways poll show the state came out on top (again) as the least obese in the nation. And while Boulder and Fort Collins both ranked among the top ten least obese cities, the details, like the calories, are in the fine print: Even in our skinniest meccas, at least one in eight citizens remains obese. So before you celebrate with cake, don't.
"Should we be worried still? Absolutely," says Dr. Ethan Lazarus, medical director for Denver's Clinical Nutrition Center. "What is an acceptable level of obesity, after all? Whenever I think about obesity, I think we're just a bunch of lemmings following other lemmings off the cliff, following others into restaurants and eating French fries and all that. In Colorado, we have to be the lemming who doesn't jump and hope a couple others follow us."
The data used for this analysis comes from more than 350,000 Americans, all interviewed between January and December 2011. Scientists used their height and weight to calculate their BMI, body mass index, for which a score greater than thirty is considered obese. Like cream, which people in Boulder might not eat, Colorado again rose to the top with an obesity rate of only 20 percent of its population, narrowly beating Hawaii's 20.4. On the opposite end of the spectrum is West Virginia, with the highest obesity numbers at 33.5 percent. Overall, the least obese states rank around eight entire points lower than their heavier counterparts.
Comparing the most and least obese cities, Texas ranked the heaviest with the combination of McCallen-Edinburg-Mission placing first at 38.8 percent and Beaumont-Port Arthur fifth with 33.8. (It can't help having a quasi-official state motto like, "Everything is bigger in Texas.")
Colorado smashed these averages with the first and third spots in the country, according to the poll: Boulder at 12.1 percent and the Fort-Collins-Loveland area at 14.6. Colorado's two model cities joined only three total entries on the list to make the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention's goal of lowering the country's average obesity rates to a slim 15 percent.
For what it's worth, the Denver-Aurora area lags slightly behind Boulder and Fort Collins, at 19 percent obese.
Much continues to be made of Colorado's role as one of the consistently leanest states in the country, says Lazarus, who encountered the topic professionally at a conference for the American Society of Bariatric Physicians in October. When a lecturer asked which attendees hailed from Colorado, Lazarus was the only doctor to raise his hand.
"He suggested there's a correlation between temperature and altitude and weight and presented the idea that it was that making us lighter, not just exercise," says Lazarus, who calls this theory short-sighted. He suggests a larger combination of effects, including the state's socieconomic makeup. That said, he urges research and investigation into the reasons behind Colorado's skinny success instead of false comfort from the title.
"I've lived in several different states, and I do think Colorado offers a greater number of opportunities to be healthy," Lazarus says. "Obesity is a serious disease with serious health consequences, and as the nation tries to combat this, I think we should look at ourselves as leaders. Instead of just saying it's our altitude or our fitness, we should really look at what Colorado is doing and work to replicate that in other states."
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Although the United Arab Emirates recently knocked the US off its podium as the international obesity capitol in 2011, the country's average obesity rate figures to around 26 percent (almost 35 percent in its most obese areas, however, compared to 15 in its least).
Even as it distributes an enormous amount of data -- for the full results, check out Gallup's website -- the poll stresses the severity of obesity even for cities seemingly in the clear. "Even in metro areas that consistently post among the lowest obesity rates in the nation, such as Boulder and Fort Collins-Loveland, at least one in eight residents are still obese," it reads, stressing that "the health and economic burden of the chronic conditions resulting from obesity is very real and very significant."
In Colorado, as a result, the costs of obesity-related health care and chances of chronic diseases are reported to be significantly lower than the states on the negative side of the spectrum, where residents are 58 percent more likely to have a heart attack and 30 percent more likely to experience depression, along with other side effects of weight gain. This data brings an additional rise in related health care costs, which the poll estimates would lower by $1 billion if rates were brought down closer to Colorado's at 15 percent.
More from our News archive: "Denver named 15th Gayest City -- based on pretty much nothing."