W.Va. leads nation in obesity

PARKERSBURG – A local health official is not surprised West Virginia was recently named the state with the highest number of overweight residents in the union.

“We generally alternate within the top three (most obese) states,” said Dick Wittberg, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department. “Unfortunately, this news does not surprise me as it is no doubt that we are one of the most obese states.”

According to the 2012 Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index released last week, 33.5 percent of West Virginia’s population is considered obese. Mississippi is the closest with an obesity rate of 32.2 percent. Arkansas has a rate of 31.4 percent, Louisiana is 30.9 percent and Alabama is listed at 30.4 percent, to round out the top five.

Wittberg said he believes a reason for the Mountain State’s high obesity rate is the change in physical jobs and increase in availability of fast food.

“We used to be a very blue collar state and got a lot of activity through our jobs,” he said. “In the last 20 years or so, many of those physically demanding jobs that took energy moved out of the area.”

Wittberg said lifestyle changes in other daily activities has contributed to the obesity issue.

“We now have a different set of entertainment values as well,” he said. “We spend more time indoors watching television than outside playing and exercising.

“Really, it is a combination of lack of physical activity and the ready access of fast food and junk food in our homes that has contributed,” Wittberg said.

To aid in helping area residents become healthier and decrease the obesity rate, the health department is working with cities to offer healthy foods and activities.

“We are working on programs to get people active and give access to healthy foods to increase the inclination to eat better,” Wittberg said.

In 2010, the department received a two-year $4.5 million federal stimulus grant to help improve health and increase physical activity in schools and the community. The funds were geared toward creating healthier communities in Wood, Calhoun, Pleasants, Ritchie, Roane and Wirt counties.

The health department is able to give WIC recipients the ability to use the program funds at farmer’s markets to allow better access to locally grown produce.

“On the positive side, our efforts seem to be making some headway as West Virginia is no longer in the top five for childhood obesity,” Wittberg said. “With the aid of schools and the community, we are increasing physical activity and the need for healthier foods; as a village we are pushing activity and nutrition and it seems to be helping.”

People who have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher are classified as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gallup and Healthways have been tracking Americans’ weight daily since January 2008.

The data collected for the index is based on respondents’ self-reports of their height and weight, used to calculate BMI.

An estimated 36 percent of American adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Colorado was rated the healthiest state with an obesity rate of 18.7 percent, according to the Gallup index.