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Living Large: Obesity In America
11:01 pm
Tue October 4, 2011

The Thinnest State Loosens Its Belt

Originally published on Wed October 5, 2011 4:28 pm

Part of an ongoing series on obesity in America.

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.)

'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.

"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.

If obesity has touched your life, share your story with NPR and the Public Insight Network.

Copyright 2012 KUNC-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kunc.org.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

We turn now to the next installment of our series on obesity in America, Living Large. Today, a visit to the thinnest state in the country, Colorado, where being fit is part of the culture. There are biking and hiking trails, ski slopes, even the altitude helps burn calories. Even so, waistlines are widening in the state, especially among children. Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Ryan Van Duzer waits until the morning sun is good and scorching before we set off on his daily ritual.

RYAN VAN DUZER: We can start jogging if you want.

SIEGLER: Okay.

DUZER: Do you run on your own?

SIEGLER: Probably not at your pace.

DUZER: It's all right. We'll take it easy.

SIEGLER: It's a trail run, right out the back of his condo in the uber-athletic college town of Boulder.

DUZER: It's funny, you know, I go on these trails and I see people, you know, from little kids to old people, out running. A lot of times those guys are passing me.

SIEGLER: Van Duzer is 32, but you wouldn't know it. His calves and legs look like they're made of steel. And body fat? Forget it. He runs about 40 miles a week and bikes even more. He's the epitome of fitness-crazy Colorado. After all, the obesity rate here is just 21 percent. And Boulder is one of the thinnest counties in the thinnest state.

DUZER: People are kind of born into it. It's a caste system. We're born into the athletic caste here in Colorado. When you, you know, 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.

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

MARK RETZLOFF: Yoga is really big here. You know, Pilates is very big here. I think in Boulder it seems like there's a bike race almost every week.

SIEGLER: And there are plenty of fitness-friendly businesses like Alfalfa's Market. Owner Mark Retzloff says Colorado has even branded itself as a place where people can come and live a healthy lifestyle.

RETZLOFF: About $2 billion in annual sales are actually located in Boulder County in the natural products and organic food industry.

SIEGLER: 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, and that's more than a million people.

CHRIS LINDLEY: When you really look at the numbers and see where we are today versus where we were 15 years ago, it's embarrassing.

SIEGLER: Chris Lindley oversees nutrition and obesity prevention at the state public health department. He 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.

LINDLEY: One in four children is either overweight or obese. This is a major problem. And so 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.

SIEGLER: 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.

JANA WRIGHT: 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.

SIEGLER: That's why Wright's group is trying to tackle the problem early on, running more than 50 gardening and nutrition programs at early childcare centers...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Whee!

SIEGLER: ...like this one, where eager kids line up for a turn at the watering hose.

JACKIE SLOAN: Michael, you know what? Those beans over there really need some love.

SIEGLER: The green beans and bright red tomatoes out here show up on their plates inside at lunch. Jackie Sloan is director of the Westminster Learning Center. She says Colorado's like every other state. Kids here are losing touch with where their food comes from in our culture of convenience.

SLOAN: We're just such a fast-paced society, I think, and everybody's in such a hurry. And the kids are the ones that ultimately are paying for it.

SIEGLER: 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 there are now programs like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Colorado is one of the leanest states in the nation, and more and more Coloradans want healthy options when eating out. So step up and give your customers what they demand.

SIEGLER: Two hundred restaurants, including many McDonald's, now highlight healthy menu options. So what a lot of people here say is, while you can't export Colorado's mountains or its ski resorts, maybe you can bring some of its fitness culture to other less-lean states.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING NOISES)

DUZER: Going uphill in a hurry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGLER: Ryan Van Duzer and I are about a mile into our run, sun high overhead, temperature around 90.

It's funny, you know. I don't see a lot of shade on this trail.

DUZER: Yeah, there's no shade, really. Not here.

SIEGLER: During a quick break, Van Duzer tells me that when he's not running or making adventure films and starring in reality TV adventure shows, he visits schools to talk to kids about how working out and being fit can be entertainment. He often leaves frustrated.

DUZER: All the kids seem to do these days is stay inside and play videogames and watch movies. And I'll see them on Monday after a long weekend, and I'll be like, hey, what'd you guys do this weekend? And they're like, ah, we played this video game until four in the morning. And it's like, really?

SIEGLER: And with that, Van Duzer darts off for five more miles. Me and my tape recorder, we've been keeping pace for about a mile. This is radio, so let's call it two.

Yeah.

DUZER: See you, buddy.

SIEGLER: Yeah. See you later. Good run.

DUZER: Thanks, man. Bye-bye.

SIEGLER: For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEARY: There is more on our series on obesity on our website. Go to npr.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.