The leanest state in the nation has set a new, unsettling record.

For the first time, more than one in five Coloradans is obese, according to a new report by The Colorado Health Foundation released Thursday.

An analysis by the statewide nonprofit news service I-News Network found obesity rates varied widely by region in Colorado. When it comes to obesity, Colorado is a tale of two states.

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On the eastern plains, nearly one in three adults is obese. But in the western part of the state, the rate is half that – about one in six adults is obese.

Paying attention to regional obesity variations can help identify ways to lower obesity rates, said Tracy Faigin Boyle, communications vice president for LiveWell Colorado, a non-profit that develops anti-obesity programs.

The availability of fresh vegetables and fruits, exercise opportunities and even infrastructure such as sidewalks vary dramatically by neighborhood, Boyle said. That’s why anti-obesity efforts must be tailored to each community.

“The overall environment is less and less conducive to making healthy choices,” Boyle said.

Child obesity rate rising faster than adult obesity rate

Part of the increase in adult obesity rates is attributable to obese children growing up to be obese adults, Boyle said.

The health foundation report, called the Colorado Health Report Card, found that the state’s child obesity rate is climbing even faster than the adult rate.

Five years ago, 9.9 percent of Colorado children were obese. In the last national survey in 2009, that figure had risen to 14.2 percent. In 2007, Colorado had the third lowest child obesity rate in the U.S. In the most recent survey, the state ranks 23rd.

The Colorado Health Report Card found that Colorado continued to lead the nation with the lowest adult obesity rate, despite rising to 22 percent from 19 percent the prior year.

LiveWell’s Boyle notes that obesity rates have been steadily climbing nationally since 1995.

At that time, Colorado had an obesity rate of only about one in ten adults. Colorado’s obesity rate has doubled since then. The state’s 22 percent obesity rate today would have led the nation in 1995.

“We would have been the most obese state in the country,” Boyle said.

Dr. James Hill, executive director of the Colorado Center for Health and Wellness, said the U.S. and Colorado face an uphill battle to reverse the obesity rates, given the current American lifestyles.

“There are so many things moving in the wrong direction and we’re literally fighting back with hats and T-shirts,” Hill said. “It’s no surprise that rates are going up and they’re going to continue to go up until we come up with something big to oppose it.

“And we haven’t figured that out yet.”

Only one Colorado county reversing the obesity trend: Arapahoe

According to the I-News analysis, only one county in the state seems to be reversing the obesity trend: Arapahoe County. There the obesity rate fell markedly from above the state average in 2006 to below the state average in the latest survey.

The I-News analysis of survey data from the state’s Colorado Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System between 2003 and 2010 found adult obesity rates varied widely across the state. They rose or stayed stagnant across all regions. The exception was Arapahoe County where the rate was 17.7 percent in the latest 2010 survey, down from 20.3 percent in 2006.

Health officials said they were not sure why Arapahoe County was seeing rates fall, but that the trend deserved more study.

“Maybe there is something happening in Arapahoe County that no one has picked up on yet,” Hill said.

The highest obesity rates were on the eastern plains where almost 30 percent of the adults were obese.

Boyle said rural communities are poorer and tend to have lower education levels, which correlate with high obesity levels.

“Strangely, the rural communities eat the least fruits and vegetables,” she said.

The lowest percentages – between 15 percent and 16 percent – were on the Western Slope along the Interstate 70 corridor, home to the state’s recreation areas.

“I would argue that is probably self-selection,” Hill said. “People who chose to live in those places are people who value that lifestyle.”

The exception was Mesa County where the rate has been steadily climbing to 23 percent.

Boyle said Mesa fits the higher obesity rate profile found in rural communities more than the ski country, tourism profile.

Highest, lowest obesity rates among Front Range counties

Along the Front Range, adults in Weld and Adams counties had the highest rates – about one in every four adults. Boulder and Douglas counties had the lowest Front Range rates – 15 percent, or about one in seven adults.

However, rates in both counties are higher than they were in 2007.

“That’s depressing if you are gaining weight in Boulder,” Hill said. “Boulder is about as healthy a community as you can find anywhere.”

El Paso County, the state’s largest county, has seen rates steadily rise to 21 percent of adults for the latest 2010 state survey.

The increase is a wake-up call for Colorado, as it has lost its status as the only state in the U.S. with an obesity rate of less than 20 percent, said Charles Reyman, vice president of communications for The Colorado Health Foundation.

“We no longer hold that distinction,” Reyman said.

Highlights of the 2011 Colorado Health Report Card

  • Colorado got its highest health grades for adults and seniors 65 years of age and over when compared with other states. It ranked lowest for health measures involving children and pregnant women.
  • Coloradans had the highest percent of seniors getting flu and pneumonia shots.
  • Colorado also has among the lowest percent of adults in the U.S. suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure.

Changes in health indicators over time

  • There has been little change in the percent of pregnant women who wait until after the first trimester to get prenatal care, the percent of low weight births and the infant mortality rate in Colorado over the past five years.
  • The percent of preschoolers immunized has fallen between 2007 and 2011 from eight of every 10 children to seven of every 10. However, the percent rose slightly from 2010 to 2011.
  • Among children, the percent without health insurance has fallen steadily over the past five years.
  • Teens in Colorado are less likely to smoke cigarettes and be sexually active than they were five years ago. In addition, the teen fertility rate has edged downward between 2007 and 2011.