The United States is getting bigger and we have the data to prove it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) assess the health and nutritional status of our nation by surveying residents from every state with questions related to their overall health . The data that is used to track weight changes in the United States goes back many years and has translated into the obesity maps, an incredibly useful tool used by health professionals nationwide to assess obesity trends. In 1985, the nation was depicted using three colors: dark blue to indicate 10 - 14 percent obesity, light blue to indicate less than 10 percent obesity or white to indicate that no data was provided for the state. Over the years the color system could not keep up with our growing waistlines, and new colors had to be added to accommodate higher obesity rates. The 2010 map has five more colors than the 1985 map; the most disturbing color is the dark red which represents states with an obesity rate greater than 30 percent. Furthermore, obesity among the children of our country has tripled since 1980. The blue states we started with are now all gone; a distant memory of how lean we used to be. Wouldn't it be great to get back to blue?
If you take the time to flip through the charts, you'll notice an obvious trend; one state took longer to change colors than any other state. Today, this state boasts the lowest obesity rates of its adult population in the nation. It's what I call the longest blue state -- Colorado. This led me to question: What secrets can we glean from this great mountain state? If Colorado can do it, can't we all learn from their success and stay trim in our own respective states as well?
Like many states, Colorado implemented physical activity and nutrition plans a few years back, which has provided education and programming to help the state reach health goals. But other states have taken similar approaches without the same success. What Colorado has been able to do, however, is create a culture that fosters hiking over video games, and farmers markets over fast food. For starters, the state provides plenty of resources for individuals to purchase fresh, locally grown food with hundreds of farmers markets weekly, as well as plenty of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs for residents to take advantage of. A recent study in the journal, Economics and Human Biology, found that individuals who lived closer to farmers markets were less likely to be obese or diabetic as compared with individuals that lived closer to traditional grocery stores.
Another advantage is access to hiking trails, bike paths and ski resorts. Residents don't have to drive hundreds of miles to find safe and pollution free locations to walk or bike. Essentially, the barriers to being healthy are eliminated in a large portion of the state.
Also, restaurants seem healthier in Colorado. While you can find fried, zero-nutrient fat and calorie bomb foods in Colorado chain restaurants, local restaurants usually provide plenty of healthy food options. I visit Colorado every year, and one of the things I look forward to most is finding a local restaurant where I can easily find 100 percent whole grain bread and pasta options, tons of fresh vegetables and lots of new and exciting low-calorie vegetarian dishes.
Finally, the air is thin and the sun shines in Colorado. Why should this matter? A 2010 study in the journal, Obesity, found that individuals in higher altitudes may actually work harder to expend energy and eat less as well. Montana and Utah also top the list of the healthiest states so perhaps there is a distinct trend here. Finally, Colorado boasts at least 300 days of sunshine a year. When the sun is out, you're less likely to be in a movie theatre or mall and more likely to be outside, and that means, more likely to be physically active.
So what does this mean for the rest of us not living in the Rocky Mountains? Do we all have to move there to change the health of the nation? Or can we simply make some small changes in our own community to achieve not only a thin population, but a population with less health costs and happier individuals?
Perhaps local communities and businesses can lead the charge. We need more communities that encourage active living with safe walking and biking paths, more farmers markets throughout our communities so that our citizens can have easy access to locally based produce, and more assistance from our local, state and federal legislators to subsidize fresh, whole foods. We also need better foods in schools, and additional programs to not only help individuals make behavioral changes related to nutrition and physical activity, but to also give them an easier environment in which to succeed.
Colorado will still need to keep their eye on their obesity rate and continue to improve as their pediatric population increases their overall obesity rate yearly. We can all do better in rethinking the culture in which we live and there is no better time than now.
The city of Cleveland, for example, sits at 653 feet above sea level and has few sunny days -- only about 18 percent of our days are filled with sun and another 27 percent are partly cloudy. Therefore, in Cleveland, we have to be more creative to keep healthy. Our barriers -- like many other states -- are greater. We are, however, also trying to knock those barriers down.
I work at Cleveland Clinic which is located just outside downtown Cleveland. Cleveland Clinic offers a variety of programs to encourage healthy behaviors including a weekly Community Farmers Market program which provides access to local, sustainable, healthy foods to the general public. We have also implemented the Let's Move It! campaign that encourages Clevelanders to get moving, stop using tobacco and eat healthy. We host regular "Walk with a Doc" events so that individuals can get their medical questions answered, while getting a few steps in, too. Finally, as part of our 5 to Go! childhood obesity prevention program, we have been working with several school districts in Northeast Ohio in an effort to transform their menus by eliminating refined carbohydrates and simple sugars, as well as developing age-appropriate wellness curricula.
Coloradans are clearly leading the climb up the mountain in the quest for a healthier population, both literally and figuratively. Isn't it time that we all get the hiking boots on and take the same journey?Start today: Work with local businesses and governments. Make better food choices at home for you and your family, and take a walk as an event rather than watch a TV show. In order to reduce our overall healthcare costs and stay competitive with other countries, our nation needs to do one thing -- get back to blue.
Follow Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KRISTINKIRKPAT