Midwest Leads in Midriff Bulges, Survey Reveals

Times Staff Writer

America has a midriff bulge, according to a recent federal study.

Researchers, using random telephone surveys, found that the highest concentration of overweight adults resides in the nation's midsection, namely in states such as Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio.

The results appeared in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

The data was compiled to determine whether people experiencing weight problems were clustered in any particular state or geographic region. Local health officials from around the country conducted the phone interviews as part of the ongoing Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

People living in 32 states and the District of Columbia were asked to provide their heights and weights. The responses were then compared against a body mass index, or a calculation that determines the average weight for various age groups. Those in excess of the index were classified as overweight.

At Increased Risk

"An estimated 34 million adults in the United States are overweight, placing them at increased risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and some types of cancer," the report stated. "Thus, reducing the prevalence of overweight is an important public health objective."

Midwestern states have the most reason for concern, judging by the survey's findings. As a region, the Midwest had 23.1% of its adult population above average weight levels.

By comparison, the West had only 17% of its respondents overweight, the Northeast had 19.8% and the South registered 22%.

On a state-by-state comparison, Indiana and Wisconsin had the most oversized adults, or 25.7% of those surveyed. The lowest percentages were found in Hawaii with only 15.5% and Montana with 16.7%. California was also among the states with a low percentage of overweight respondents. Its total was 18.7%.

Men were slightly more ample than women, according to the survey. Of the males questioned, 21.8% were listed as heavier than average whereas the rate for females was 21.1%.

Wisconsin was the state most likely to contain fattish men, with 26.9% of its respondents classified as overweight. Ohio and Indiana followed closely with 26.8% of their males reporting excess girth. The states with the lowest percentage of overweight males were Arizona with only 15.1% and Maryland with 16.5%. Of California men queried in the survey, 20.6% were classified overweight.

Heavier Than Average

Overweight women were most likely to be living in Indiana, where 24.6% of the females queried were considered heavier than average. The District of Columbia had 25.8% of its female respondents classified as oversized, according to the survey.

The places least likely to host overweight women were Hawaii, where only 13.7% of those females surveyed were listed as above average, and California, with only 16.8% considered heavy.

Although the results demonstrate that at least one in five Americans is considered overweight, the report's authors said that the actual figure is probably higher.

Even so, the distinct regional differences that did emerge in the survey were attributed to variations in eating habits and exercise patterns. The disparity in the state-by-state overweight percentages, however, demonstrates that large-scale improvements in the public's physical condition is possible.

"Public Health agencies should encourage moderate, but regular, physical activity and caloric restriction through decreased dietary fat consumption in weight-loss programs," the article stated. "These efforts are of special importance in states with the highest prevalences of overweight."

Guilt Over Gum?--There may actually be some benefits to chewing gum, according to several recent studies on the subject.

Young children should still be dissuaded from the practice because it may stunt tooth growth, but adults could incorporate the habit into a dental care program with little apparent harm, reports the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

"It depends on how long you chew gum and how it's sweetened. Done in moderation, it can be a healthful adjunct to brushing and flossing," the article stated.

For instance, one such benefit is the production of saliva, which helps counter tooth-decaying acids found in dental plaque. Research conducted by the Indiana School of Dentistry found that chewing gum actually stimulates the creation of significant amounts of saliva, the newsletter reported.

Decline in Development

Another study, by the University of Michigan, showed a decline in cavity development among 11- and 12-year-olds who chewed an experimental gum sweetened with xylitol, a nonfermentable sugar alcohol, three times a day. Xylitol is believed to counter bacteria that can also produce a tooth-decaying acid, according to the Wellness Letter.

Several precautions need to be taken if gum's limited benefits are to be utilized. Sugarless brands are preferable to those that contain sucrose, or table sugar. And gum chewing is best when done shortly after finishing a meal. Any such session should last no longer than 15 to 20 minutes, the article stated.

In fact, extended chewing of gum can create several problems, including jaw stress, erosion of tooth surfaces, cracked fillings and loosened inlays.

"There are indeed dental dangers to be braved, especially if the gum contains sucrose. But at the same time, those ads promoting gum as an aid to 'dental hygiene' may not be farfetched," the newsletter reported.

Encouraging Organics--California is one of six states lauded for its efforts to promote organic and low-chemical farming in a recent report by a Washington-based consumer group.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest also singled out Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin for encouraging pesticide reductions.

California was commended for offering courses at UC Santa Cruz on ways of limiting farm chemicals. The state was also noted for a research program that provides information to growers on pesticide alternatives.

Other states have also developed innovative ways to promote organic farming. Iowa, for instance, taxes the sale of pesticide and synthetic fertilizers to fund research designed to reduced the compounds' usage on farms. The program now generates about $4 million annually.

New York and Vermont, according to the group, have awarded grants to organic farmers to assist in the marketing of their crops. And five states fund inspection programs which certify that organically grown food meets local standards.

The Centers for Science claims that the federal government, however, is not doing enough to fund alternative farming programs. In the current fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will spend only $4.5 million to finance experiments aimed at reducing pesticide usage.

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