Pound Problem Growing: Obesity on the Rise in Maryland, Virginia

Article excerpt

Marylanders and Virginians are packing on the pounds faster than other folks in the United States, according to a recent report, and some health experts say the problem is a symptom of our fast-moving lifestyles.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study revealed the number of obese adults - people 20 percent above their ideal body weight - in both Maryland and Virginia jumped by more than 75 percent from 1991 to 1998. The nation as a whole saw a 50 percent increase during that time.

"The good life now is represented by being `big,' " said Carol Friedman, executive director of Maryland's Advisory Council on Physical Fitness. "The bigger the house, the bigger the car, the bigger the taste, the better."

In 1991, 12 percent of the nation's population was obese, a number that grew to 17.9 percent by 1998 and has some health care professionals worried that obesity will become an epidemic.

While the obese populations of Maryland in Virginia were below the national average in 1991 - at 11.2 percent and 10.1 percent, respectively - residents of the states loosened their belts in the 1990s. Now, 19.8 percent of Maryland and 18.2 percent of Virginia adults are living larger than dietitians believe is healthy.

Obesity is defined in terms of body mass index (BMI), a measurement based on weight and height and related to body-fat content. A body mass index of 30 or higher, for either men or women, is considered obese.

Nutrition experts blame less-active lifestyles and diets higher in fat for the increase in obesity nationwide, but regional factors may be partly responsible for the dramatic rise in obesity in Maryland and Virginia.

"Urban areas with few recreational areas and with streets not made to be pedestrian-friendly, like around Washington, contribute to physical inactivity since people are in their cars so much," Ms. Friedman said.

Pressed by busy schedules, few people have time to visit fitness centers, while others can't afford to join, she added.

"One of the prime groups of people who are hard to motivate to be active are poor urban dwellers, because they have other concerns like safety or feeding their kids on a low budget," Ms. Friedman said.

Increasing urbanization was cited as a possible reason for more obesity, along with climate and cooking tradition.

"In Southern states food is prepared with more fat, and it's hotter in the summertime so people don't want to go outside and exercise as much," said Cindy Shufflebarger, nutrition program coordinator for the Virginia Health Department.

And while many may think nothing of supersizing their meals, overeating can result in more than a large grocery bill.

"The cost of obesity is simple: premature death," Ms. Friedman said.

Obesity has been linked to increased risks of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, noninsulin diabetes and other health problems estimated to cause over 200,000 early deaths and cost the nation more than $200 billion annually in medical bills and lost productivity.

At Virginia hospitals alone, more than 100,000 people were treated for cardiovascular disease at a cost of $1. …