Southern states meet in summit to fight obesity

Published 9:04 pm Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bidding to shed the South’s distinction as the country’s fattest region, health officials joined community advocates and policy experts in a three-day obesity summit that ended Tuesday with a call to slim ballooning bodies across the Bible Belt.

The 2008 Southern Obesity Summit gave states an opportunity to swap advice about what’s working and what’s not in efforts to curb obesity. And with nine of the 10 fattest states located in the South, it’s fitting the Birmingham summit’s acronym was S-O-S.

“It’s very discouraging. Every year we are going up with obesity and that’s why it was important for us to come and learn from others who are dealing with the same issues,” said Mary Murimi, an associate Louisiana Tech University professor, who is leading a behavior modification project in rural areas.

“The Southern regions have a lot of bad news,” she added, ticking off poverty and cultural influences. “It’s an awakening. We have to work harder.”

This is the second year for the Texas Health Institute event, which is co-sponsored by several health organizations. It takes a new approach by bringing the heaviest states together, instead of each trying to go it alone in the struggle against obesity.

Klaus Kroyer Madsen, vice president of programs for the Texas nonprofit that works to innovate on public health systems, said there’s a reason no such summits have been held for western or eastern states.

“The Southern region by far is the part of the country that is most affected by the obesity epidemic,” he said.

“In Alabama, one out of every three adults is obese and that is a tremendous burden not just on the physical health but also on the fiscal health of the states,” Madsen added.

He said it even effects how competitive southern states will be in the national economy.

Southern Obesity Summit

More than 260 people attended the summit, visiting nutrition and fitness booths, munching on vegetable “cocktails” from glasses lined with fat-free ranch dressing and joining an impromptu aerobics session by “Sweating in the Spirit” and “Buns of Steel” fitness guru Donna Richardson Joyner.

“Woohoo! Didn’t that feel good?” Joyner asked after leading the audience in some calisthenics before giving a motivational talk encouraging the slightly winded attendees to lead by example — and make time for fitness.

“Sometimes you have to talk the talk, but you have to make sure you’re walking the walk,” said Joyner, who has spent two years on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Michigan, which ranked 10th for obesity in a summer report by the Trust for America’s Health, and Missouri (ranked 13th) were the only non-Southern states sending representatives to the conference, which covered everything from community design to promoting healthy lifestyles among youth.

Another goal is taking a “strength in numbers” approach to getting regional policies developed to address such issues such as the number of fast food restaurants and the contents of school vending machines.

It’s a strategy that could be very successful, said Hank Cardello, a former marketing executive at several companies, including Coca-Cola USA and Anheuser-Busch and current Chairman of the Global Obesity Business Forum.

“Disproportionately more soft drinks, more fast food, more fried food is consumed in the South. As a block, this is something you need to think hard about,” Cardello said in a keynote speech Monday.

He suggested states work with the corporations to find win-win solutions that balance their need for profits with consumer health.

For example, one Minneapolis school district went from four to 16 vendors but added more water and juice in machines and priced the drinks 25 cents to 50 cents cheaper than soft drinks. Consumption of soft drinks decreased and vending profits rose by $4,000.

“Let them make the money, but show them how,” Cardello said.

University of Alabama at Birmingham professor Olivia Thomas said such efforts to turn healthy choices into the default options are key to making significant inroads.

“Instead of fighting so much against the fast food restaurant, can we put in better grocery stores with more affordable produce … so that we have more of a competition?” she asked. “If you have a beautiful grocery store with foods that people can understand how to go home and prepare them and it’s not going to cost them a small fortune, then we’ve made the healthy choice the default choice”