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N.D. slips one spot in obesity rankings

Here's an exercise North Dakotans could have done without: climbing another rung on the ladder of the nation's most obese states.

A report released Tuesday ranks North Dakota as the 21st most obese state, up one spot from last year's "F as in Fat" report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

From 2007 to 2009, the state's adult obesity rate grew to a hefty 27.7 percent, 1 percent higher than from 2006 to 2008 -- a statistically significant increase, according to the report.

The uptick in tubbiness followed a national trend -- 38 states now have adult obesity rates above 25 percent -- and came as no surprise to Deanna Askew, healthy communities coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Health.

"I think we fell right into where I would have expected us to fall," she said.

"Certainly we never like to see an increase," she added. "We'd much rather see the numbers leveled or decreased."

Minnesota's adult obesity rate rose two-tenths of a percent to 25.5 percent, making it the 32nd most obese state, which actually was down one spot from 2006-2008 because of larger increases in other states.

Also, for the first time, the report examined what it found to be "troubling" racial and ethnic disparities in obesity rates. Adult rates for blacks and Latinos were higher than for whites in at least 40 states and Washington, D.C.

In North Dakota, the adult obesity rate among Latinos was 37.4 percent -- second in the nation behind Tennessee. The rate was 31.3 percent among blacks and 26.8 percent among whites. However, state officials cautioned that sample sizes for minorities in North Dakota tend to be small and don't always accurately reflect a group's overall population.

Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, said Americans still face barriers that make healthy choices challenging, such as the high cost of healthy foods and lack of access to safe places to exercise.

The nation's response to the obesity crisis "has yet to fully match the magnitude of the problem," he stated in a news release.

The report points out that Minnesota and North Dakota are not among at least 20 states that have set nutritional guidelines stricter than federal standards for school lunches, snacks, vending machines and so-called "competitive foods" sold in schools.

The states also don't require weight or body mass index screenings of children and adolescents, as at least 20 other states do.

Loris Freier, assistant director for child nutrition programs at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, said new nutrition standards for schools are now moving through Congress, which is why the state hasn't acted.

"It's going to happen at the federal level," she said.

She and Askew noted that school districts were required to develop school wellness policies in 2006.

Cass-Clay Healthy People Initiative is working with the Fargo School District to strengthen its policy, addressing everything from vending machines and portion sizes to recess and rewards in the classroom, said Kim Lipetzky, a dietician and nutritionist at Fargo Cass Public Health.

"Local schools are working hard ... to make some very positive changes there," she said.

Children who learn healthy eating habits are more likely to carry them into adulthood, she said.

With so many factors contributing to obesity, Askew said creating an environment that encourages healthy choices is key. That includes making neighborhoods and streets more conducive to biking and walking, she said.

"Certainly we have a lot of work to do," she said. "There's no question we can't accept how things are right now."

Mike Nowatzki is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.