One in every three Hispanics in Arizona is obese, and with the state's changing demographics, that figure could get worse without intervention.
A new report released Tuesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America's Health lists Arizona among the six most obese states in the country when it comes to its Hispanic population, and 15th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia for its rate of childhood obesity.
Eighteen percent of Arizona children ages 10 through 17 of all ethnicities are obese, putting them at higher risk for chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The report underscores a childhood obesity crisis so acute that a group of retired U.S. military admirals and generals has made a plea for better school nutrition, saying that obesity is threatening national security. Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit group, says that more than 9 million Americans ages 17 to 24 are too overweight to enlist in the U.S. military.
In Arizona, more than one-quarter of adults are obese, making Arizona the 29th-most-obese state in the nation, the data show. This year's report was based on data collected from 2007 to 2009.
Donald Gates, who is part of a Pima County Health Department team administering a $16 million federal grant to promote healthful eating and active lifestyles in Southern Arizona, said the numbers underscore the need for better health awareness.
"There's no question the billions of dollars we spend on obesity-related medical care dwarfs the $16 million received," he said. "If we can make a tiny dent in reducing those costs, it more than pays for itself."
Gates said the biggest share of the grant money will go to the University of Arizona. Other entities that will receive some of the money include the YMCA of Southern Arizona, PRO Neighborhoods, the Community Food Bank and the Carondelet Health Network. He could not say specifically how the money would be used, explaining that the county-run effort is at an early stage.
Socioeconomic data strongly correlate with the obesity, the report's findings say. More than one-third of adults who earn less than $15,000 per year are obese, noted Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health.
Arizona's poverty rate is 16 percent, one of the highest in the nation, and studies have consistently shown that minorities are more likely to live in poverty than whites. Arizona's obesity rate for whites is 23.3 percent, compared with the 33.4 percent rate for Hispanics.
"Most Americans know obesity is a serious problem, but millions of Americans, particularly in communities of color, still face barriers," said Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink, a national group advocating social and economic equality. "The link between poverty, race and diabetes is undeniable."
Glover Blackwell said nearly 40 percent of Latino children are overweight or obese, and are more likely to develop diabetes. She said that by 2050, combined minorities will make up a majority in the U.S., and that by 2023, minorities will make up a majority of people under age 18.
Some of the national study's other key findings:
• The number of obese adults rose in 28 states over a rolling average between the 2009 and 2010 data.
• Thirty-eight states now have obesity rates above 25 percent, and in 1991 not a single U.S. state was above 20 percent.
• The rate for Hispanics was above 35 percent in two states, while no states were above 35 percent for whites.
• Ten of the 11 states with the highest obesity rates were in the southern United States.
• Colorado has the nation's lowest rate of obesity - 19.1 percent - and it is the only state in the country below 20 percent.
Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at email@example.com or 573-4134.