updated 3/29/2005 12:36:19 PM ET 2005-03-29T17:36:19

The percentage of Virginians qualifying as obese is growing at a faster rate than anywhere else in the nation, according to a federal study.

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The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System found that 23.7 percent of 1,027 Virginians surveyed by telephone qualified as obese. That's up from 9.9 percent of 170 respondents in 1990, and gives the state the nation's fastest growing waistline.

But the state isn't just resting on its expanding laurels.

The Virginia Department of Health is working with Gov. Mark R. Warner's office to identify reasons for the increased obesity rate and develop possible girth-busting solutions through a series of six regional and two statewide meetings before the end of May.

"We were aware of it," Yedda Stancil, the health department's obesity prevention and physical activity coordinator, said Monday of the state's figures.

Warner launched the Healthy Virginians program last November, leading a 1-mile lunch-hour walk for hundreds of state workers from the Capitol to a health fair. The initiative encourages state employees to take 15 minutes to walk or exercise daily.

The program, also extended into public schools, is intended to bring down health care costs by reducing obesity, hypertension and other preventable diseases.

The meetings are part of the Commonwealth's Healthy Approach and Mobilization Plan for Inactivity, Obesity and Nutrition, or CHAMPION. It's goal is to bring together medical professionals, teachers, parents and others to discuss reasons for the increase in obesity in their areas of the state, and to develop a plan to address it.

Regional meetings have been held in Wytheville and Roanoke, and a state meeting was held in Richmond. Meetings are also slated for Harrisonburg, Sandston and Hampton Roads, with a state meeting in Richmond wrapping up the series on May 25-26.

Dietary deficiencies and a lack of activity are issues that come up everywhere, Stancil said. Others such as information flow, or lack thereof, and the absence of programs that address obesity can be more prevalent in some areas than others.

"There's so much information coming out and people don't know what to decipher," she said. "You reach different people at different places by different means."

Obesity is defined as have a body-mass index greater than 30 when factoring height against weight. People with BMI levels of 25 to 29.9 are considered overweight.

Once the meetings have concluded and the information is assessed, the health department plans to develop a plan -- some of it community- or region-specific -- to aggressively address obesity and compile resources to help Virginians fight it.

Despite its standing at the top for percentage growth in obesity, Virginia doesn't have the nation's highest percentage of obese adults. West Virginia is the fattest at 27.5 percent, Mississippi has 26.8 percent and Texas has 25.5 percent.

All the results are based on telephone surveys, with respondents asked for their height and weight, so "if anything, it's probably underestimated," Stancil said.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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