ST. PAUL-The percentage of Minnesotans who are obese has dropped, and the obesity rate is lower here than in other Upper Midwestern states, data released on Thursday show.
State health officials aren't above some not-so-humble bragging about that.
"Minnesota was the only state in the region, including North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa, to succeed in keeping its obesity rates firmly below 30 percent," the Minnesota Department of Health reported on Thursday, citing newly-released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
From 2014 to 2015, the percentage of Minnesotans who meet the definition of obese dropped from 27.6 percent to 26.1 percent, the data show.
Although that still leaves more than 1.4 million of the state's residents obese, the decline is "statistically significant," said Annie Harala, Northeastern Minnesota regional coordinator for SHIP - the Statewide Health Improvement Program.
But Dr. Stephen Park of Ely, who practices in weight management with 22 Essentia Health clinics, said he was suspicious of the data and considered the reported improvement marginal. The overall picture remains dire, Park said.
"If you look at the data, two-thirds of our country, not just us but worldwide ... is either overweight or obese," Park said. "The estimates are that by 2020 half of our country is going to be prediabetic or diabetic."
Nonetheless, he said, "I think we're making some headway. We've learned a ton over the past 15 years."
Minnesota is one of only four states - Montana, New York and Ohio are the others - in which the obesity rate declined, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported in an analysis of the data. It was the first time in a decade that any state experienced a decline. Obesity rates increased in Kansas and Kentucky and stayed about the same everywhere else.
Although Minnesota is leading the way in terms of obesity in the Upper Midwest, it still has a long way to go to catch up with Colorado, which had the nation's lowest obesity at 20.2 percent. Louisiana had the highest rate, at 36.2 percent. It said 22 of the 25 states with the highest rates of obesity are in the South and Midwest.
North Dakota had a rate of 31 percent, ranked 17th highest in the nation, while South Dakota had a 30.4 percent rate at 21st.
Minnesota's improvement is no accident, said Dr. Sarah Nelson, medical consultant for the Carlton-Cook-Lake-St. Louis Community Health Board. She credited in particular the bipartisan healthcare reform in 2008 in which the Minnesota Legislature launched the SHIP.
"That has brought a lot more prevention into our community," Nelson said.
The state spends more money on health than any area, even education, said state Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth. "One of the things that becomes clear is ... you have to be proactive," he said. "The SHIP program was really intended to do that."
A current initiative is evident to anyone driving, biking or walking on Sixth Avenue East and Ninth Street. Those yellow posts at that intersection and white posts along the street are part of a demonstration project launched by Places for People. That name denotes a campaign to make that area more pedestrian-friendly, said Shawna Mullen. She's active transportation coordinator for the Zeitgeist Center for Arts and Community's Healthy Duluth Initiative, which organized the campaign along with the St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Department.
The yellow posts form what would be a "pedestrian refuge island," allowing a stopping point if the four-lane street hasn't been crossed before the light changes. The white posts form curb extensions or "bumpouts" at crossings.
The bumpouts make the street narrower, which naturally causes traffic to slow, Mullen said. They also provide a shorter distance for pedestrians crossing the street.
That's particularly of interest in that area, Mullen said, because of its proximity to Myers-Wilkins Elementary School. She noted that walking across those streets has been considered so unsafe for children that the school system provides busing for kids who live west of Sixth Avenue East or south of Ninth Street - two-thirds of the student body.
"Students who are as close as two blocks to the school qualify for bus service," Mullen said. "And that's kind of crazy."
The posts will be dismantled "when the snow flies," Mullen said, but the feedback may be helpful as Ninth Street comes due for resurfacing in 2019.
A worksite wellness initiative in Itasca County learned employees of local businesses were having a hard time finding healthy foods when they ordered out for lunch, Harala said. The result was the Get Fit Itasca Smart Dining Guide, a menu upon which restaurants list only items that include fruits or vegetables and with limited calories overall.
Those are two among many efforts to achieve an overall goal, Harala said. "We want to make sure people have the option to choose their healthy thing."
Dr. Like He, a family physician with St. Luke's Medical Arts Clinic, said he noticed a difference here compared with Kansas City, from which he recently relocated. People in Minnesota "tend to be thinner," he said, and seem to enjoy outdoor activities more.
"In Kansas City, we couldn't go anywhere," He said. "In Duluth I noticed there's so many small parks and trails."
Missouri's obesity rate is 32.4 percent.