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Obesity Maps Put Racial Differences On Stark Display

Take a look at the latest obesity data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and you can see that the country's obesity epidemic is far from over.

Even in Colorado, the state with the lowest rate, 21.3 percent of its population is obese. Arkansas tops the list with 35.9 percent.

"It is the largest epidemic of a chronic disease that we've ever seen in human history," says Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, chair of the department of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Click on the CDC's obesity prevalence mapsand you'll see something even more startling — the disparity among different ethnic groups. It's not new that the obesity epidemic is hitting African-Americans the hardest, followed by Hispanics, but the maps highlight this worrying trend.

For African-Americans for example, there are 33 states with an obesity rate of at least 35 percent, whereas for white Americans only 1 state reports that rate. Nine states estimate the Hispanic obesity rate at 35 percent or higher.

"It is not about one group doing something wrong," says Lloyd-Jones, who was not involved in creating the CDC maps. "It is about the environment that we have built that sets people up to fail."

Race and ethnicity are often a surrogate for low socioeconomic status, he says.

"Our neighborhoods, workplaces and schools expose people, especially poor people, to less choices of healthy foods," Lloyd-Jones says. There are also fewer places outside to be safe and burn off calories.

This has huge implications for the health of individuals and for health costs in the future, because obesity causes significant downstream health problems like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

The CDC created the maps using self-reported information from the 2014 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS.)

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Jane Greenhalgh is a senior producer and editor on NPR's Science Desk.
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