Obesity Crisis: What is the Fattest State in America

Over the past three years, Michelle Obama has made healthy eating and regular exercise her cause célèbre, picking up vegetable gardening and even doing the dougie to send her message.

In a reference to her campaign on Monday night's Tonight Show with Jay Leno, when Olympic medalist Gabby Douglas discussed a recent trip to McDonald's, First Lady Michelle Obama jokingly said, “you’re setting me back, Gabby.”

But Douglas’ Egg McMuffin should be the least of the first lady's worries. Despite the high cost obesity represents to taxpayers, over a fifth of Americans in every state are obese, according to new statistics from the CDC.

A Tuesday report by the government agency includes a U.S. map accompanied by each state’s obesity rate – meaning the percentage of residents who possess a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more.

Mississippi solidified its reputation as America’s heftiest state, with a whopping 34.9% of its residents qualifying as obese. But even in Colorado, which ranked at the bottom of the obesity list, 20.7% of the population was obese. Twenty seven states had an obesity rate ranging from 25-30%, and 12 had a rate equal to or greater than 30%. Only 11 states had an obesity rate lower than 25%, with most located in the Southwest and Northeast. 

The study also found Western states weighed the least (24.3% obesity), tailed by the Northeast (25.3%), Midwest (29%) and the South, which tipped the scales with its 29.5% obesity rate. Though this ranking feeds the stereotype of the obese Southerner with a high-fat diet, a closer look at the numbers paints a more complex picture. For example, Arkansas (30.9%) and South Carolina (30.8), were both beat by Michigan’s obesity rate of 31.8% – fifth in the nation – and Georgia (28%) proved fitter than Pennsylvania (28.6%).

 Unfortunately, because of a change in the CDC’s data gathering methodology, this year’s statistics cannot be reliably compared to those of years past. Still, they offer an idea of the considerable work that lies ahead if the country wants to combat obesity successfully.

Michelle Obama’s intentions are good, no doubt. But she and other influential policy shapers          and makers who continue to push exercise and healthy eating must recognize the elephant in the room: The obesity epidemic is in fact feeding our bottom line.

For purveyors of fast-food, the taxes society pays toward treating the obese are merely a side-effect of their quest for profits. Like smoking, obesity hits poor and minority populations the hardest. Yet unlike big tobacco, which also operates at a cost to taxpayers, neither the fast-food industry nor its products are taxed to offset the cost of its activities.

Wall Street demands ever-increasing profits from publicly held fast-food chains like McDonald's (MCD). Executives, beholden to wealthy individual shareholders, institutional investors, and ordinary Americans with 401Ks alike, are eager to deliver. The growing, transport, shelving, marketing, and sale of such food keeps American workers of all socioeconomic levels employed and busy. Thus, our highways become dotted with fast-food joints and our arteries, with plaque.

Until we acknowledge our economic dependence on obesity, we will continue to frustratedly throw our flabby arms in the air and ask where we went wrong.