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America's 12 Most Obese States (And What the Numbers Don't Tell Us)

Our nation suffers from a terrible relationship with food and our bodies. Where is it worst? And do the numbers tell the whole story?

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Many of these states essentially coincided with the overall unhealthiest state rankings that arrived earlier this year, partly because those rankings include obesity as a de facto, but also because of things like tobacco use and child welfare: "Mississippi was again the unhealthiest state in the nation -- a spot it has held for the past decade, thanks in part to high rates of obesity, childhood poverty, and preventable hospitalizations. Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana rounded out the five least-healthy states."

If you look at child well-being numbers, you also have many of the same states plus Nevada, New Mexico and California, places where foreclosures and the recession have hit hardest.

Here are the results, from the CDC.

  • By state, obesity prevalence ranged from 20.7% in Colorado to 34.9% in Mississippi in 2011. No state had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%. 39 states had a prevalence of 25% or more; 12 of these states had a prevalence of 30% or more: Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia.
  • The South had the highest prevalence of obesity (29.5%), followed by the Midwest (29.0%), the Northeast (25.3%) and the West (24.3%).

Here's a visualization:


(image via CDC)

So it's true that an ultra-red, ultraconservative state with a high-poverty index like Mississippi and many of its neighbors frequently end up on the bottom of these health index lists. But it's also true, based on the CDC numbers, that correlation between obesity and income and education levels are both insignificant, particularly for men. So there has to be more going on.

My instincts tell me that what Americans need most of all to get healthy is time and basic quality of life issues taken care of, rather than shaming. When it comes to states, just like individuals, shaming and laughing at the most obese ones may not help. Access to better nutrition, safer places to play outdoors, and good health facilities-- whether it's a pool, a clinic, a farmer's market or a doctor's office--are more needed than diets. And things like paid sick leave, more vacation time, better wages and shorter work days are probably much more effective in getting Americans out of the fast food lines and home to cook than any shaming or public awareness campaign can be.

Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahmseltzer and find her work at

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