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16 States Now Have Obesity Rates 35% Or Higher. That's 4 More States Than Last Year

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It's official. The pandemic's rumored effect on America's waistline is real. A report based on new CDC data showed 16 states documented obesity rates of 35% or higher. That's an increase of four states in just a year. Moreover, those rates are rising faster among racial minorities. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Fatima Cody Stanford is a leading obesity researcher at Harvard Medical School. She's long argued obesity's growing prevalence has not met with adequate recognition that it is a disease. And because it goes largely unrecognized or untreated, it does not surprise her that its incidence also continues to increase, especially during difficult times like these.

FATIMA CODY STANFORD: When we look at factors that play a role in rising obesity, we know stress is one of them.

NOGUCHI: She says stress doesn't just affect exercise and eating patterns. It also prompts the body to store more fat. If anything, she says, the new data likely understate the problem.

CODY STANFORD: When patients are reporting or individuals are reporting their weight, they tend to underreport. So I think that this report will undercapture, actually, the degree of obesity in the U.S.

NOGUCHI: Obesity is one of the fastest-growing, overarching health threats, both to individuals and the health care system. The pandemic laid bare how obesity makes people more vulnerable to hospitalization and death from COVID. At the same time, it worsened many of the social and economic factors that cause obesity, too. Nadine Gracia is President and CEO of Trust for America's Health, a health policy group that analyzed the CDC's 2020 data. She says larger investments in healthier school meals and greater access to recreation are necessary to combat what is, essentially, an accelerating problem.

NADINE GRACIA: In the year 2000, no state had an adult obesity rate that was above 25%.

NOGUCHI: Now all but three states - Colorado, Massachusetts and Hawaii, plus the District of Columbia - have crossed that threshold. The rates are higher in the South and Midwest. There are big racial differences too. Nearly half of Black people and 57% of Black women have obesity. In the Latino population, the rate is nearly 45%. Among white adults, 42%. Gracia says with obesity comes a threat of diabetes, heart or kidney disease and cancer. That adds to an enormous financial cost.

GRACIA: We spend about $149 billion annually on health care costs that are obesity-related.

NOGUCHI: Elena Rios is President and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association. She says more minority families face the economic brunt of the pandemic because they represent a greater share of low-wage or essential workers.

ELENA RIOS: I mean, there's just so much pressure on low-income families. Everybody has to pitch in and do something that they don't take care of their health.

NOGUCHI: There are other community factors Rios points to as well - fewer local options for healthy food, less access to health insurance and care.

RIOS: Our communities don't get the messages that you're going to have diabetes earlier. You're going to have heart disease earlier in your life. And by the time you're 30s and 40s, you're going to be on dialysis. That's the trend that's happening in our communities.

NOGUCHI: Many experts see promise in new medications that appear safer and more effective than previous treatments, but few patients have access because most insurers don't cover them. Congress is considering legislation to allow Medicare to cover obesity drugs. Tammy Boyd is Chief Policy Officer of the Black Women's Health Imperative. She says that would be a huge step.

TAMMY BOYD: By Medicare covering, it's providing access.

NOGUCHI: And it might spur other insurers to do the same.

BOYD: If Medicare covers - right? - I think other plans will follow.

NOGUCHI: And that might help curb the disturbing trend.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE POSTAL SERVICE SONG, "SLEEPING IN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.