The Thinnest State Loosens Its Belt

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The obesity crisis is catching up with Colorado, the nation's thinnest state.

Being fit is part of the culture in Colorado: there are biking trails and hiking trails and ski slopes and even the high altitude itself helps burn off calories. But waistlines are widening, especially among children.

And in 2010, Colorado lost its status as the only state with an obesity rate lower than 20 percent. It's rate is 21 percent. (Story continues after the graphic.)

State Snapshot: Obesity and Poverty In The U.S.

U.S. maps showing national obesity and poverty rates

'It's Embarrassing'

Ryan Van Duzer, 32, is the epitome of fitness-crazy Colorado.

Duzer runs 40 miles a week and bikes even more. He lives in the uber-athletic college town of Boulder — one of Colorado's thinnest counties.

"People are kind of born into it. It's a caste system. We're born into the athletic caste here in Colorado. When you get your first bottle when you're a baby, it's full of like Gatorade, and you're ready to rock and roll as a young person," Van Duzer says.

Easy access to trails, sunny weather and a highly educated population churning and burning more calories at altitude are all widely attributed to Colorado being the thinnest state.

And there are plenty of fitness-friendly businesses like Alfalfa's Market, a natural foods supermarket. Owner Mark Retzloff says Colorado has even branded itself as a place where people can come and live a healthy lifestyle. "About $2 billion in annual sales are actually located in Boulder County in the natural products and organic food industry," Retzloff says.

Alfalfa's is a local institution. Nearby are other health food icons like Celestial Seasonings, Silk Soymilk and Horizon Organic Dairy.

But all the jogging and healthy eating doesn't mean Colorado is immune from the obesity crisis plaguing the rest of the nation. Buried behind all the glossy brochures of bronzed athletes scaling peaks is the fact that even in the thinnest state, one out of every five Coloradans is obese. That's more than a million people.

"When you really look at the numbers and see where we are today versus where we were 15 years ago, it's embarrassing," says Chris Lindley, who oversees nutrition and obesity prevention at the state public health department.

Lindley points out that 15 years ago, the state with the highest obesity rate in the country is where Colorado's is today. And Colorado now has one of the fastest growing rates of childhood obesity.

Ryan Van Duzer, an outdoor enthusiast who has starred in reality TV adventure shows, visits Colorado schools to talk about how working out can be entertainment. He says he often leaves frustrated after kids tell him about staying inside playing video games. i i

Ryan Van Duzer, an outdoor enthusiast who has starred in reality TV adventure shows, visits Colorado schools to talk about how working out can be entertainment. He says he often leaves frustrated after kids tell him about staying inside playing video games. Kirk Siegler for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kirk Siegler for NPR
Ryan Van Duzer, an outdoor enthusiast who has starred in reality TV adventure shows, visits Colorado schools to talk about how working out can be entertainment. He says he often leaves frustrated after kids tell him about staying inside playing video games.

Ryan Van Duzer, an outdoor enthusiast who has starred in reality TV adventure shows, visits Colorado schools to talk about how working out can be entertainment. He says he often leaves frustrated after kids tell him about staying inside playing video games.

Kirk Siegler for NPR

"One in four children is either overweight or obese. This is a major problem. While Colorado might get some accolades of being the leanest state or having a great lifestyle, we are far from setting the model of where we want to be," Lindley says.

Fighting The Scale

Public health officials blame this on the rising poverty rate, and they're worried. Jana Wright sees the problem every day as a teacher with a group called Partnerships for Healthy Communities. They're trying to bring nutrition and obesity prevention to schools in the poorer suburbs north of Denver.

"Those low-income families are the ones that are leaning heavier on those convenient foods that really cause weight gain and are a huge problem in the obesity epidemic," Wright says.

That's why Wright's group is trying to tackle the problem early on, running more than 50 gardening and nutrition programs at early child care centers. Jackie Sloan, director of the Westminster Learning Center, says Colorado's like every other state. Kids here are losing touch with where their food comes from in our culture of convenience. "We're just such a fast-paced society I think, and everybody's in such a hurry, and the kids are ultimately the ones that are paying for it," Sloan says.

Sloan says kids also aren't getting the exercise or physical education that they used to. To that end, Colorado lawmakers this year passed a physical activity requirement for all public schools. And the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has developed the Smart Meal program, which is designed to help consumers make healthy choices when they go out to eat. Two-hundred restaurants participating in the program — including many McDonald's — now highlight healthy menu options.

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