Minnesota’s adult obesity rate has surpassed 30% for the first time and appears to be closing in on the national rate, a troubling sign for public health officials who have been fighting Minnesota’s weight problem for more than a decade.

State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm cited a number of culprits but said that consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas remains a problem, along with the growing concern of sedentary youth stuck on computers and mobile phones.

“Sugary drinks are the largest source of added sugars in the American diet, and the added calories from sugary drinks are strongly associated with weight gain and obesity,” Malcolm said.

She also cited research showing that young adults between 15 and 18 spend more than 7 ½ hours a day in front of a screen.

“That’s time they’re not being active,” she said.

Obesity is considered a grave public health concern because it has been linked to chronic, costly conditions such as diabetes and heart disease as well as certain forms of cancer.

Minnesota’s obesity rate jumped from 28.4% in 2017 to 30.1% in 2018, equaling South Dakota’s, which for years had much higher adult obesity rates than Minnesota. The national rate, by comparison, increased from 30.1% in 2017 to 30.9% in 2018, according to survey data released Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rates in North Dakota and Iowa were above 35%.

Rates inch up

Obesity is defined as a body mass index above 30, which is a relative measure of weight vs. height. Thirty is roughly the BMI for a man who is 5 feet 10 and weighs 209 pounds.

A separate category — overweight — applies to people with a BMI between 25 and 30. Nearly 66 percent of Minnesota adults are considered overweight.

Minnesota health officials began sounding the alarm on obesity in 2001, the last year when the state’s adult rate was below 20%. The number had changed only gradually in subsequent years, holding at less than 26% from 2007 through 2013.

Public health officials hoped that meant the state was getting a payoff from aggressive prevention efforts, including taxpayer investments in local wellness programs and infrastructure through the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership, or SHIP, which started in 2011. Communities across the state used SHIP grants to fund walking paths, farmers markets and other strategies to make it easier for people to make healthy dietary and exercise choices.

Although the change from 2017 to 2018 was modest, it represented the third consecutive increase, and state leaders are taking it seriously, said Kristine Igo, who directs statewide health improvement efforts for the Minnesota Department of Health. The increase doesn’t suggest a failure of the state’s SHIP program, which has been hailed by the CDC as an effective strategy for promoting better health, she said. Instead, it underscores the research showing how broader societal issues such as poverty, housing quality and safety play a role.

“It shows how difficult it is to actually bend the curve on obesity rates,” Igo said.

Sports drinks, coffee drinks

Minnesota for the first time since 2013 added questions about sugar-sweetened beverage consumption to the CDC’s annual adult behavior survey and found little change. Then and now, only 42% refrained from daily consumption of sodas. Last year, more than 15% of respondents in Minnesota said they drank one or more per day. The data showed a strong correlation between this level of consumption and obesity.

In addition, the soda question didn’t account for consumption of high-calorie sports drinks and specialty coffees, which contribute to the problem, added Ann Zukoski, a program evaluator for the Health Department’s state health improvement initiative.

Racial disparities in obesity rates persisted, though it was unclear whether gains in obesity in any one group caused the overall state rate to increase, she said. American Indian adults had the highest adult obesity rate in the state at 42.2% last year. The rate for Hispanic adults exceeded 34%.

The state is using a new CDC grant to focus on breast-feeding, which has been shown to reduce childhood obesity, and to improve exercise and diet options in preschools.

Igo said many obesity prevention initiatives take time to pay off, including those for youth, which eventually should result in the next generation of adults being healthier.

“We develop taste preference in our early years,” she said. “The science demonstrates that.”