Markian Hawryluk
The Bulletin

Oregon’s obesity rate hit 30.1 percent in 2015, the highest adult obesity rate of any state west of the Rockies, according to a report released Thursday by a pair of health care foundations.

The State of Obesity report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that half of U.S. states now have obesity rates of more than 30 percent, including four states in the South with rates of more than 35 percent.

There were some signs that nationally the rate of increase was slowing. Four states — Minnesota, Montana, New York and Ohio — saw their obesity rates go down, the first time over the past decade that any state has seen a decline.

“We are making some progress, but there’s more to do,” said Richard Hamburg, interim president and CEO of the Trust for America’s Health.

The obesity rates were based on a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oregon has now posted an increase in each of the past two years, from 26.5 percent in 2013, to 27.9 percent in 2014 to 30.1 percent in 2015.

Oregon health officials conduct their own surveys within the state and found a slightly lower rate, just under 27 percent, in 2014.

“Based on that, we’re not that different from California or Washington,” said Luci Longoria, health promotion manager with the Oregon Health Authority. “Regardless, we absolutely do have an obesity crisis.”

State officials plan to release updated obesity data later this fall, and Longoria said preliminary results show there might be an uptick in the state’s obesity rate in 2015.

“We’ve been able to stay pretty flat which was our intention given the resources that we have to address obesity,” Longoria said. “We’ve been successful in slowing it down and keeping it pretty flat.”

Still, obesity rates have nearly tripled in Oregon since 1990, disproportionately affecting minority and rural residents as well as individuals with less education or lower income. Obesity accounts for some 1,500 deaths in Oregon each year, making it the state’s second leading cause of preventable death, trailing only tobacco.

Chronic conditions linked to obesity, including diabetes and heart disease, cost the state about $1.6 billion a year.

Yet, the state has no formal obesity prevention program. Longoria said most of the resources used to address obesity come from federal grants.

“These grants are really intended for other specifics,” she said. “We’re trying to make the most of those resources, to help people understand the magnitude of the problem.”

The report also underscored the dichotomy within Oregon. While more affluent residents can take advantage of the state’s ample outdoor recreation opportunities and shop for fresh produce at farmers markets or upscale grocery stores, many of the state’s residents struggle to afford healthy foods or to find time for recreational opportunities within their hectic lives.

“When you think about Bend, you think about easy access to all sorts of healthy activities and a great community to live in with shared values for a particular way of life,” said Deborah John, an associate professor with Oregon State University’s Hallie Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families. “Yet that’s only a certain subset of people who live in Bend.”

John has recently completed work on a five-year, $4.8 million obesity prevention project, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, targeting schoolchildren ages 5 to 8 in rural towns in six Western states including Oregon.

She found that in rural areas of Oregon, children entering kindergarten have obesity rates right around the national average. By the time they reach sixth grade, the percentage of kids overweight or obese reaches almost 40 percent.

“These families want to do better, but they don’t have grocery stores in their communities, the kids ride buses an hour and 15 minutes each way,” she said. “The parents are commuting long distances to work. By the time they get home, rounding up the family to take them to the park that takes another 30 minutes to get to, it’s just not happening.”

Families who struggle to make ends meet often rely on lower cost, lower quality foods that contribute excess calories but little nutritional value. Many rural areas of the state qualify as food deserts, with little access to fresh produce and nutritious foods.

Such differences are evident in county-by-county obesity rates for Oregon from 2010 to 2013. Deschutes County had an adult obesity rate of 21.8 percent, while neighboring Jefferson County had nearly double that rate, at 40.1 percent.

Dr. Thuy Hughes, a weight-loss surgeon with the St. Charles Medical Group, said the presence of outdoor enthusiasts and elite athletes tends to mask the presence of obesity in Central Oregon.

“There is this kind of biphasic separation of the active and the left-behind people,” Hughes said. “You have your young, up-and-coming, do-everything-outdoors types and then you have the underserved population.”

That also makes advocating for resources to help disadvantaged groups live healthy lifestyles difficult.

“You try to sell this to the folks who run 50 miles a week, and they say, ‘Well, they just don’t have enough willpower,’” Hughes said. “They’re missing the point. Some of them don’t want to live like this, but their life situation put them there and now you can’t just will them out. They actually need help.”

Frameworks for making such changes are already in place in Oregon. The State Health Improvement Plan in 2015 included a chapter on ways to slow the increase in obesity rates, outlining strategies such as a tax on sugary beverages or building new parks and recreational facilities in underserved areas.

And a public-private partnership seeking to make Oregon the healthiest states is rallying support for changes to communities to promote healthy living.

The Central Oregon Health Council has several initiatives underway to address the risk factors — including obesity — for diabetes and heart diseases.

Despite such efforts, however, it could take years to undo the decades of rising obesity rates.

“It takes a long time to change the environment,” John said. “The right people need to be exposed to the environment and those behaviors need to change. And eventually you will see a shift in obesity prevalence.”

Laura Segal, director of public affairs for Trust for America’s Health and one of the co-authors of the obesity report, said that while obesity rates aren’t going to be cut in half overnight, implementing the proven strategies could reduce rates by 5 percent with 10 years.

“It’s definitely a complicated issue that’s not going to be solved overnight and there’s no magic single answer,” Segal said. “But we’ve also found small changes can make a big difference. Just adding 10 minutes a day of more activity and improving your nutritional intake can have a big impact on an individual’s life.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2162,