Despite endless opportunities to chow down at buffets and fast-food restaurants, Nevadans aren’t the fattest in the land.
Mississippians — and most Southerners — have that distinction.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t shed a few pounds.
As with most Americans, the waistlines of Nevadans are slowly but steadily increasing. With that fat comes an increase in diabetes and cardiovascular disease, common medical conditions linked to being overweight or obese, according to a new report by Trust For America’s Health.
"The numbers I just heard is that two-thirds of our adult population, nationally, is overweight,” said Sen. Valerie Wiener, D-Las Vegas, who returned Monday morning from a health forum in New Orleans. "Nevada, we’re the exception. But not by much.”
The nonprofit’s report, "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America," was released Monday and ranks Nevada as the 37th heaviest state in the country. Of the state’s adult population, 22.2 percent are considered obese. Last year, Nevada ranked 42nd heaviest, with 21 percent of adults considered obese; in 2005, the Silver State ranked 43rd.
Based in Washington, D.C., the Trust For America’s Health analyzed state trends using data collected in telephone surveys by the federal Center for Disease Control’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. To measure obesity rates, the survey compares data from 2003-2005 with 2004-2006. It combines information from three years to improve the accuracy of projections. Because the information comes from personal estimates over the phone, some believe results are conservative.
The report found that adult obesity rates rose in 21 states in the U.S. since 2006, and adult obesity rates now exceed 25 percent in 19 states.
No state experienced a decrease. Even Colorado, ranked the leanest state, saw its adult obesity rate increase in the past year — to 17.6 percent, from 16.9.
Behind Mississippi as the top ranked states were West Virginia and Alabama.
"It isn’t getting any better; it is getting worse,” said Dr. James Lau, chief of the division of bariatric surgery at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, which began in July as an effort to help the state’s residents shed some weight.
Unless Nevada can reverse the trend it will never meet the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s national goal of reducing adult obesity rates by 15 percent by 2010, Lau said.
The Trust For Health report found that rates of overweight children, ages 10 to 17, ranged from a high of 22.8 percent in Washington, D.C., to a low of 8.5 percent in Utah. Eight of the 10 states with the highest rate of overweight children were in the South.
Nevada’s children ranked 36th heaviest, at 12.4 percent, according to the report.
The report also shows that 26 percent of adults surveyed in Nevada say they do not engage in any physical activity. The national average is 22 percent.
But Nevada is one of a minority of states requiring school lunches, breakfasts, and snacks to meet higher nutritional standards than set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the report shows.
Nevada also sets nutritional standards for food sold in vending machines, a la carte, in schools stores or in school bake sales. It also limits when and where these foods may be sold on school property beyond federal requirements.
Nevada does not, however, screen fitness status or body mass index — known as BMI — of students. Lau and Wiener hope to change that.
"There has never been prevention here,” Lau said. "This state, we have done very little to address that problem. We have no obesity-related state programs. BMI is not being collected in schools yet. There are no screenings for diabetes in schools, so there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Wiener said a bill was passed during the 2007 Legislative session requiring school districts to obtain student body mass indexes, but only for study purposes. The idea is to perform a "scientific sampling" so overweight and obesity rates can be determined, she said.
Conditions linked to obesity include stroke, high blood pressure, heart disease, gall bladder disease, osteoarthritis, gout and difficulty breathing.
According to a recent health report by the Southern Nevada Health District, chief health officer Dr. Lawrence Sands said the obesity rate in Clark County is up more than 3 percentage points since 2000 and continues to rise.
Sands said eating right and exercising remain the best ways to stay healthy.
Lau said the School of Medicine also has plans to address Nevada’s overweight and obesity issues through a new program called the Healthy Options for Prevention and Education, or HOPE. The program will be piloted for 20 months in Las Vegas starting in November.
The goal is to educate children and families about achieving healthier lifestyles through better dietary choices and physical fitness.
There are two components to the project, Lau said. The first is to work with local restaurants and buffets to create healthier menu options and to include nutritional information of meals.
"That’s a very daunting challenge but one we are willing to try to attempt,” he said. "If voters can pass a smoking ban, we feel that bolsters our chances of getting restaurants to offer healthier options to its customers.”
The second component of HOPE will focus on the development of uniform exercise routines at parks, community centers and athletic clubs.
To combat obesity, Lau said there is a lot of interest from the public in bariatric surgery, which changes a patient’s stomach size, the length of the small intestine, or both. The goal is to limit how much food can be eaten or absorbed.
The first bariatric surgery at UMC will be next month, Lau said.
"Most (bariatric) programs that start from the ground up take six months before the first operation,” Lau said. "I will begin in September in one-third of the time. That’s basically the demand that we have right now.”
Naquita Parker-Richardson, a certified bariatric nurse at Desert Springs Hospital Medical Center, said since its bariatric program started in 2005, roughly 18 to 20 operations take place there each month.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS MORE POUNDS: Obesity rates climbed in 31 states last year, and no state showed a decline. WHERE: Mississippi became the first state to crack the 30 percent barrier for adults considered to be obese. West Virginia and Alabama were just behind. Nevada ranked 37th. PUBLIC CRISIS: Health officials say the latest state rankings provide evidence that the nation has a public health crisis on its hands.