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Obesity could double in Minnesota if patterns hold

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Childhood obesity
A new analysis from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation of government health data suggests that Minnesota's obesity rate could climb to 54.7 percent by 2030 if the state's current weight-related trends don't change. Currently 25.7 percent of Minnesota adults are obese.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Anyone who thinks Minnesota has a serious obesity problem now should look ahead 20 years. It could get a whole lot worse.

A new analysis of government health data suggests that Minnesota's obesity rate could climb to a staggering 54.7 percent by 2030 if the state's current weight-related trends don't change. Currently 25.7 percent of Minnesota adults are obese. 

The analysis comes from the non-partisan health advocacy group Trust for America's Health and the New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Although the two organizations have been collaborating on an annual report on obesity trends for several years, this is the first time that their "F as in Fat" report has peered into the future.

"It is a scary look forward in what might be," said Rich Hamburg, deputy director of Trust for America's Health. "And we have to think more about what we can do to make sure that doesn't happen." 

Hamburg said the new obesity report mines the same federal government health statistics used in previous reports. But instead of focusing on one year's worth of survey data, it examines the country's obesity trends from 1985 to the present and projects where the nation is headed if nothing changes.

He cites Centers for Disease Control and Prevention obesity maps of each state from 1985 to 2011.

"It's been an increase in every one of those years," Hamburg said.  

If that trend holds steady, the analysis shows that in less than 20 years, 13 states could have adult obesity rates exceeding 60 percent. Minnesota would be among the majority of other states with an obesity rate above 50 percent.

The percentages are startling, but they may not reflect the best way to estimate future obesity trends.

"The major limitation here is when you're using past projections to predict the future," said Dr. Donald Hensrud, a preventive medicine and nutrition specialist at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine. 

"There's a lot of assumptions that what has happened over the past 20 years is going to continue," he said. "And while it's very reasonable, that isn't necessarily the case of what's going to happen."

For example, it's possible that there's a certain segment of the population that is more susceptible to weight gain while other people may be more resistant to weight gain, Hensrud said.

If most of the susceptible people have been counted as obese already, then obesity rates could stabilize rather quickly, something that is hard to account for when making a projection. 

It's also possible that exercise and nutrition initiatives around the country are beginning to lessen the obesity rate, Hensrud said, adding that it is probably too early to detect that.

Still, the report's obesity projections are not unreasonable, Hensrud said.

"If we don't do anything and trends continue, this is likely to happen," he said. "That's kind of the worst case scenario. The other end of the spectrum is if we do something, if we are able to reverse this, then the news is good. Our health will improve; we'll save a lot of costs." 

Simone French, an obesity prevention researcher at the University of Minnesota, hopes the report's dire projections will motivate lawmakers to take more action on reducing obesity. For example, she thinks Congress should restrict sugar-sweetened beverage purchases for people on federal food-assistance programs.

State officials could address the problem, French said, by working with health plans to combat obesity and diabetes.

But after years of trying to draw attention to the problem, she's wary. 

"I think it's disturbing, but I just don't know when people are going to be disturbed enough to be able to step up on the policy front and confront this," French said.

Recent moves to make school meals healthier and add calorie information to restaurant menus are positive changes, French said, but those initiatives were first proposed decades ago. 

She said Minnesotans will have to work much faster than that if they hope to change the trajectory of the state's obesity problem.

2011 US obesity rate

2030 projected US obesity rate