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Mississipi remains the most obese state

ATLANTA (AP) -- Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee lead the nation when it comes to obesity, a new government survey reported Thursday.

More than 30 percent of adults in each of the states tipped the scales enough to ensure the South remains the nation's fattest region.

Colorado was the least obese, with about 19 percent fitting that category in a random telephone survey last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

North Dakota was at 27 percent, up from 25.4 percent in 2006 and from 17 percent in 1997, the state Health Department said.

"I would say it's been a steady rise," said Karen Ehrens, a registered dietitian and consultant to Healthy North Dakota, a group working around the state to prevent disease.

"It can't be pinned on any one factor. We're pretty close to the U.S. average, which is 25.6 percent," Ehrens said of the ranking.

Some of the factors include cold weather that makes it more difficult to find fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter, and work places that make it more difficult to make healthy choices, she said.

A number of programs have been started in schools to promote healthier lifestyles, and more money would help, Ehrens said. "The Health Department has done things to make it a priority, but funding has not been identified to support that," she said.

The 2007 findings are similar to results from the same survey the three previous years. Mississippi has had the highest obesity rate every year since 2004. But Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia and Louisiana have also clustered near the top of the list, often so close that the difference between their rates and Mississippi's may not be statistically significant.

Why is the South so heavy? The traditional Southern diet -- high in fat and fried food -- may be part of the answer, said Dr. William Dietz, who heads CDC's nutrition, physical activity and obesity division.

The South also has a large concentration of rural residents and black women -- two groups that tend to have higher obesity rates, he said.

Colorado, meanwhile, is a state with a reputation for exercise. It has plentiful biking and hiking trails, and an elevation that causes the body to labor a bit more, Dietz said.

Obesity is based on the body mass index, a calculation using height and weight. A 5-foot, 9-inch adult who weighs 203 pounds would have a BMI of 30, which is considered the threshold for obesity.

CDC officials believe the telephone survey of 350,000 adults offers conservative estimates of obesity rates, because it's based on what respondents said about their height and weight. Men commonly overstate their height and women often lowball their weight, health experts say.

"The heavier you are, the more you underestimate your weight, probably because you don't weigh yourself as often," Dietz said.

Overall, about 26 percent of the respondents were obese, according to the study, published this week in CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

A different CDC survey -- a gold-standard project in which researchers actually weigh and measure survey respondents -- put the adult obesity rate at 34 percent in 2005 and 2006, the most recent years for which there are data.

High fuel prices may have one benefit in encouraging more people to walk or ride their bikes and become more physically active, Ehrens said.

"If people are eating out less, that could be a good thing, too," she said. "When you can cook your own food at home, you can control what goes into it."