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The 10 Most Obese States in America (And the Right-Wing Policies That Promote Poor Health)

Republicans promote policies that entrench poverty, and obesity and poverty often go together.

Obesity is a problem all over the country, but the problem is worse in some states than in others. A recent Gallup study presented state-by-state obesity stats and while the research didn't get into politics, one need only scratch the surface to notice that many of the more obese states lean Republican. Of the 10 states Gallup cited as the most obese, eight went for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election: Mississippi, West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma (the exceptions in that top 10 are Ohio and Delaware, both of which Obama won). And except for Montana—which came in at #1 for thinness—all of the 10 states Gallup cited as the least obese are states Obama carried (including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Mexico, California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Nevada, Colorado and New York).

This is no coincidence: Republicans promote policies that tend to entrench poverty, and obesity and poverty often go together. The Republican-dominated states where obesity rates are the highest are states where one is more apt to find more poverty, weak union protection, an abundance of people who lack health insurance and a strong opposition to the Affordable Care Act of 2010. 

The obesity epidemic in the U.S. can be attributed to a wide variety of factors—not only poverty, lack of health insurance and inadequate access to healthy food, but also everything from sedentary lifestyles to stress. Obesity can’t be blamed exclusively on the conservative policies; there is plenty of obesity in Philadelphia, Baltimore and other Democrat-dominated cities. But Gallup’s poll clearly demonstrates that obesity is widespread in red-state America, and GOP policies, from opposition to healthcare reform to union-busting to cutting food stamps, only exacerbate the problem.

Below are the 10 most obese states with analysis of the economic and political conditions in those states.

1. Mississippi

Mississippi topped Gallup’s list of the U.S.’ most obese states with a 35.4% obesity rate. In other words, one in three Mississippi residents is obese (which is defined as having a body/mass index of 30 or higher). And Mississippi is as Republican as it gets: not since Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976 has a Democrat carried Mississippi in a presidential race. The U.S.’ most obese state is also its poorest, and Mississippi’s healthcare crisis only makes matters worse: one in five Mississippi residents lacked health insurance in 2013. Regardless, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (a Republican) remains a vehement opponent of the Affordable Care Act, refusing any type of Medicaid expansion via Obamacare in his state. The people who need healthcare reform the most in Mississippi—the obese, the uninsured, the poor, the unemployed or underemployed—are the very people Bryant and other Republicans have turned their backs on.

2. West Virginia

West Virginia has long been a poster child for white rural poverty in the United States, and it isn’t hard to understand why. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, West Virginia (which was 92% white in 2012) had a poverty rate of 17.6% from 2008-2012 compared to 14.9% nationwide. In some West Virginia counties, life expectancy is only slightly higher than it is in Ghana or Haiti—and the fact that West Virginia has the second highest obesity rate in the U.S. (34.4% in Gallup’s poll) certainly isn’t helping West Virginia residents live longer. West Virginia does have a Democratic governor (Earl Ray Tomblin) and Democrats (many of them center-right Blue Dogs) presently dominate West Virginia’s state senate. Nonetheless, Republican ideas are widespread in West Virginia, and Republican Evan Jenkins (a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives) has been campaigning on repealing the Affordable Care Act. Given West Virginia’s obesity and poverty rates and frighteningly low life expectancy, rolling back healthcare reform is the last thing that state should be doing in 2014.

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