BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A new study ranked Alabama as the nation's fourth-fattest state, and health officials said Monday they have yet to see evidence that programs encouraging residents to slim down are doing much to combat poor diets and a lack of exercise at the heart of the problem.
The report, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said 32 percent of Alabama's adults were obese last year. That was only slightly better than the obesity rates in Mississippi, which led the nation at 34.9 percent; Louisiana, at 33.4 percent; and West Virginia, at 32.4 percent.
The reported obesity rate for Alabama in 2011 was a little less than the percentage from 2010, but the CDC said the two numbers cannot be compared because it changed statistical methods. That made it difficult to gauge whether there's been any real statistical improvement in fighting obesity in the state.
A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Public Health said efforts to curb weight haven't stopped an increase in the problem of obesity, however.
"Over the last 15 years the obesity level in the nation and in Alabama continues to go up," said Dr. Jim McVay, head of health promotion for the agency. "Certainly the Deep South has many of the highest rates, but it is a national problem."
It's not that Alabama health officials aren't trying to get people to lose weight.
The annual Scale Back Alabama weight-reduction program drew almost 30,000 participants this year. Combined, they lost 148,963 pounds. Public Health has even published a guide for its own meetings encouraging organizers to offer healthy snacks such as fruit and vegetables and challenging the idea that each break during a gathering requires food.
McVay said unhealthy diets and a lack of physical activity are causing an increase in health problems and diseases including diabetes. He added that the problem is getting worse as more and more young people become obese.
"What we'd hope is that people would start making a lifestyle change and we'd see improvement," said McVay.
The latest figures are based on a 2011 telephone survey that asked adults their height and weight. Households with cellphones and no traditional landlines were included for the first time, making it hard to compare the results with past studies.
The number of states with very high obesity rates increased from nine to 12. At least 30 percent of adults were obese in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia.
Colorado had the nation's lowest obesity rate, at 20.7 percent.
Miriam Gaines, director of nutrition and physical activity for Alabama's health agency, said rather than concentrating solely on getting individuals to eat less and exercise more, officials are now encouraging communities to add amenities such as sidewalks and bike trails to encourage physical activity.
Reversing the trend of increasing obesity will take time nationwide, she said.
"We continue to gain weight," said Gaines. "Two years ago I got all excited because Alabama's numbers went down. But it wasn't because Alabama was losing weight; it was that other states were gaining weight."