Tenn. tries to help residents slim down
Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2008 9:06 pm
By JANELL ROSS
NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee and its residents’ waistlines have achieved a big but unwelcome distinction.
In 2007, the state joined just two others — Alabama and Mississippi — where 30 percent or more of adults are obese, according to new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Experts point to a collection of personal and public choices as driving the rise of obesity in Southern states such as Tennessee, but the South isn’t alone. In the roughly 20 years since the CDC began tracking obesity across the United States, the problem has grown in every state.
No state has ever reversed the trend, but that’s not keeping Tennessee from trying.
The numbers are generating state policy and community initiatives aimed at reducing the number of Tennesseans who are living with and dying from the preventable conditions excess weight can cause. But with a problem so pervasive, the fix is more complex than a crash diet.
Shrinking the size of Tennessee will require large-scale cultural and environmental change, experts say.
“I think for us to be able to adequately address obesity, we have to overcome the huge stigma associated with obesity. Despite what people may believe, it’s not a character flaw,” said Pam Davis, a registered nurse who lost 160 pounds with the help of bariatric surgery. Davis also is the director of Centennial Hospital’s Center for the Treatment of Obesity and one of its patients.
“If we want to understand why so many people are so far overweight and do something about it, we’re going to have to recognize it’s a complex, multi-factor condition,” she said. “Believe me. I know.”
The terms “overweight” and “obese” are medical labels for ranges of weight higher than what is generally considered healthy for an individual’s height. An adult with a body mass index — calculated by comparing height and weight — of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight. An adult with a body mass index of 30 or higher is considered obese.
Nearly 64 percent of adult Tennesseans and about 60 percent of Americans overall are either obese or overweight. If America’s weight gain continues at the current rate, Johns Hopkins researchers predict, by 2030 about 86 percent of all Americans will be overweight or obese.
Much of Tennessee’s official efforts to reduce obesity are focused on getting people moving and changing their habits. In the South, food flavored with animal fat, like ham hocks or bacon, or fried is a part of nearly every major life event. And because the region has higher rates of poverty, more residents with less education and more African-American women per capita than other regions, obesity is most pronounced in the South.
But in 2006, the University of Baltimore’s Obesity Research Initiative actually gave Tennessee an A grade because it has put into place policies that promote healthy weights and combat obesity. Tennessee requires 90 minutes of physical activity each week for its schoolchildren, restricted what vending machines in K-12 schools can contain and has made efforts to improve school lunch offerings.
Tennessee Health Commissioner Susan Cooper can rattle off a string of stories about local governments and community groupsdoing what she calls “innovative and interesting things to change the situation.” There’s the story of a Johnson City walking program that even got the mayor moving. He reported not just losing 20 pounds but also finding new time to spend with his wife.
A Cheatham County program gave 12 overweight children and their families access to two area gyms free of charge. Ten children reported weight loss, and one child was able to abandon an asthma inhaler.
Various state agencies also are sponsoring programs to encourage more active play at child-care centers and more detailed and preventive care for diabetics. The Department of Health compiled a cookbook of low-cost and nutritious recipes, which is available on its Web site along with a calorie calculator. On GetFitTN.com, visitors can register to track their exercise and food intake and look for fitness challenges.
But Cooper faces constant reminders of the challenge facing the state. She once visited a school with what she thought was a universal symbol of fun and fitness — the Hula-Hoop.
“This little girl turned that thing around and around, felt all the way around that Hula-Hoop,” she said. “Then she looks up at me and said the most amazing thing. She said, ‘How do you turn this thing on?’ “
And many Tennesseans aren’t aware of the programs. Nashville resident Vivian Miller said she’s never used any of them. Until recently, Miller, who is 75 pounds overweight, said she felt trapped between her schedule and her family’s health.
“When I get off work and I’m thinking about the fact that the kids need to do their homework. They can get to that homework quicker if we pick something up and we all eat on the way home,” she said. “See, for us, that fast food is a problem and a solution.”
Last year, when Miller was feeling dizzy and constantly exhausted, her doctor put her on medication for elevated blood pressure and told her she was edging close to diabetes if she didn’t lose weight. Now Miller spends 20 to 30 minutes every other day strolling around Hadley Park near her mother’s home, avoids fast food and has lost 15 pounds this year.
She has more time to cook because her hours were cut back at work.
Miller’s story of a new diet and a convenient place to walk illustrates why the CDC is stressing the need to change people’s environments, said Deb Galuska, the associate director for science in the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the centers.
“People’s exercise and eating habits have a direct relationship to what is available to them,” Galuska said. “If you live near a park, for example, you are more likely to use it. And if you live in a neighborhood where you have to take three buses and then walk three blocks to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, you are more likely to eat the fast food nearby.”
In some communities, making it easier for people to live healthier lives is going to require a reduction in crime so they can feel safe walking in their neighborhoods. In others, it is going to mean building more sidewalks, building denser residential communities or developments where people work and live. In other communities it means building more parks, trails and community exercise facilities, Galuska said.
“That’s how deep we will have to dig into our personal and community resources to solve this,” she said.
Whatever happens, it’s going to take time to reverse Tennessee’s trend, the state’s health commissioner said.
“We didn’t get fat and unhealthy overnight, and we can’t change it that way either,” Cooper said. “But do I see a lot of people doing a lot of innovative and exciting things that could work, over time, yes.”
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com
Published in The Messenger 10.16.08