MONTPELIER — About 280,000 Vermont adults – nearly 60 percent – are overweight or obese, prompting the state Health Department and the Attorney General's office to jumpstart efforts to encourage people to exercise, improve their daily diets, and hold down health care costs in the process.
The effort received a boost recently from First Lady Michelle Obama, who identified fighting the problem of childhood obesity as her "legacy" issue, with about one-third of the nation's children considered obese.
"To have the first lady talk about this is great," said Susan Coburn, nutrition and physical activity chief for the Vermont Department of Health. The department pushed its Fit & Healthy initiative in 2006, and now works with schools, communities and employers to encourage healthier behavior aimed at reducing obesity.
In addition, the Attorney General's office has joined the movement, holding a meeting earlier this month to launch an obesity initiative. This follows the Attorney General's past health-related initiatives on senior issues, end-of-life and palliative care, lead in the environment and anti-tobacco efforts.
"We're not riding in here to save the world, that we've got this great idea," Attorney General William Sorrell told the group gathered for the Feb. 17 meeting. He said much has been taking place at the local, state and federal level, and he also applauded Michelle Obama's recent comments.
"That is going to highlight national attention and concern on the issue," Sorrell said. "This is a happening issue, if you will. I welcome the opportunity for Vermont, as it has in many other arenas, to be at the forefront of positive change for this state and this country."
Obesity is generally defined as a weight that is greater than what is considered healthy for a particular height. For example, the Centers for Disease Control indicate that a 5'9" tall adult is considered overweight at between 169 and 202 pounds; that person is considered obese over 203 pounds – although there are various factors that impact that determination.
In Vermont, 22 percent of adults are obese, weighing more than 30 pounds above a healthy weight, according to the Health Department. In addition, the prevalence of obesity among Vermont adults doubled between 1990 and 2007.
That is of concern because the department says being overweight increases the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, heart disease and certain cancers.
"It's a little early to tell, but we're starting to see a little bit of a stabilizing, which is a positive," Cohen said of Vermont's obesity statistics. "However, when you're talking about 60 percent of your population of adults (being overweight), that's not a good thing.
"It's still what I would call a public health epidemic," Cohen added.
According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, health care expenditures attributable to obesity in Vermont are $183 million dollars annually; nationally the cost ranges from $98 billion to $129 billion, according to health officials. Vermont's per capita cost of $7,506 exceeds the national average by about 15 percent, according to the Rudd Center.
The Rudd Center is lobbying for passage of a tax on soft drinks to help reduce obesity. Vermont adults consume an average of 1.5 soft drinks or fruit drinks per day, or 48.8 gallons of sugar-sweetened beverages annually, the organization notes.
The issue of obese or overweight children is especially troubling, Cohen said.
"The biggest concern with children shows that children who are overweight are more likely to be overweight adults," she said. Factors that have contributed to an increase in obesity among children include technology – more sedentary television, computer and video game time, for example.
She said the Department of Education and Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets are working to provide healthier food choices for children in schools. In addition, some employers are taking workplace steps to encourage healthier behavior in employees, some as simple as adding a bike rack to help workers peddle to work rather than drive.
And communities are joining the cause, in some cases creating bike paths and more walkable sidewalks to encourage residents to be active.
"Michelle Obama is a leader, a model and a mom. It was really great for her to come out and say this is a problem," Cohen said. "Her initiative is looking at a multi-faceted approach – gardening to get kids to experience where their food comes from ... she's also looking at those big picture policy changes, like food labeling and packaging."
It's a job made a little bit harder by the lagging economy, with people trying to stretch their dollars and buying cheaper, less healthy – but calorie dense – food, Cohen said.
But the public focus on trying to reduce obesity is welcome, she added.
"This is a very exciting field to be in," Cohen said. "To have the First Lady talk about it is great."
For more information on the state's Fit and Healthy initiative, visit www.healthyvermont.gov and click on the "Obesity" prompt on the left.
For more information on the Attorney General's efforts, visit www.atg.state.vt.us and click on the "Obesity" prompt on the left.
For more information on preventing obesity, visit www.cdc.gov/obesity/.
Societal trends contributing toward obesity:
* a tendency to eat meals away from home
* increased soda consumption, large portion sizes
* eating fewer fruits and vegetables
* driving more than walking or biking
*increased time spent in front of the television
* and fewer opportunities for physical activity.
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