SOURCES: David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Yale University Prevention Research Center, New Haven, Conn., and president, American College of Lifestyle Medicine; Sept. 21, 2015, news conference with Jeff Levi,Ph.D., executive director, Trust for America's Health
MONDAY, Sept. 21, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Obesity still plagues millions of Americans, as rates remain high in most states, a new report finds.
The South and Midwest have the highest adult obesity rates, making up 23 of the 25 states with rates now topping 30 percent.
In 42 states, blacks have obesity rates of 30 percent or more, as do Hispanics in 30 states. Obesity rates of 30 percent or more among whites are found in 13 states, the findings showed.
"The obesity epidemic is one of the nation's most serious health crises," Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, said during a Monday morning media briefing.
Levi said that stemming the obesity problem is a complex challenge. On the one hand, obesity involves personal responsibility, he said. On the other hand, the scope of the problem makes it clear that it can't be treated as a problem of personal failing, he added.
"Success requires finding ways to make healthy choices easier in our daily lives," Levi said. "Children need the chance to grow up at a healthy weight, and all adults need the opportunity to be as healthy as they can be, no matter what their weight."
On the plus side, obesity rates have remained the same in all but five states, Levi said. Although the obesity rate has not dropped in any state, he sees the leveling off as a hopeful sign.
"We view this as a sign of progress, and the efforts made to help curb the epidemic over the past few years are having an impact and are evidence that if we invest in effective programs, we can make a difference," Levi said.
"But to date, the investments made have been limited and haven't been sufficient to turn the tide," he added.
In 2014, obesity rates increased in Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Utah, according to the report released Monday from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The highest obesity rate was posted in Arkansas, at 35.9 percent. Colorado had the lowest rate, at 21.3 percent.
In three states -- Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia -- the obesity rate was greater than 35 percent.
The obesity rate was at or above 30 percent in 22 states and was not below 21 percent in any state, the researchers found.
In contrast, no state's obesity rate was above 15 percent in 1980 and no state had a rate above 20 percent in 1991, the researchers added.
Now, more than 30 percent of adults, nearly 17 percent of 2- to 19-year-olds and more than 8 percent of children aged 2 to 5 are obese, the report found.
As a consequence, nearly 78 million Americans are at increased risk for a variety of obesity-related health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, the researchers warned.
Levi said that prevention is crucial to ending the obesity epidemic. "It is easier and more effective to prevent obesity than it is to reverse trends later," he said.
This means promoting good nutrition and physical activity at an early age, so that kids start school at a healthy weight and stay that way as they age, Levi said.
"Small changes that make it easier to afford to buy healthy foods and beverages and be physically active can lead to big differences," Levi said.
Programs that can be effective include improving school meals, making streets safe for walking and increasing preventive health services, he suggested.
"We do know a lot about what works, now we just have to invest in these approaches," Levi said.
Other findings from the report include:
Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, called the new report a "reminder that obesity is among the great urgencies of modern public health."
But, he added, "Nowhere will that effort be easy. This report indicates it will be harder in some places than others, and those are the places where the need for change is most acute."
Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on obesity.