WASHINGTON — South Carolinians' wallets may be thinner these days, but their waistlines are expanding.
Almost 30 percent of South Carolina's residents are obese, making it the fifth-fattest state in the country.
That's the finding of a new study by two public health organizations, which also determined that eight of the 10 most obese states are in the South -- though neither of South Carolina's neighbors, Georgia and North Carolina, cracked that unwelcome list.
"When you eat a lot of buttered biscuits and fried chicken, it takes its toll," said Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, N.C.
South Carolina was the eighth-fattest state in 2006 in a report by the same two groups, the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The state's obesity rate has climbed from 26.2 percent then to 29.7 percent now.
Southerners are getting heftier even as other Americans appear to be slimming down.
Nationwide, 26.6 percent of Americans are obese, down from 32 percent in 2006.
Douglas Woodward, an economics professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, said the severe recession has hit the South especially hard because it's poorer than other regions of the country.
"We already had a problem, and this (recession) is only going to exacerbate it," Woodward said. "We know that poor people don't eat well and are not healthy. What happens in a recession is more people become poor. They tend to buy more processed foods, more fast foods, more foods that are unhealthy but relatively cheap."
Michigan and Ohio, which have been ravaged by the recession, are the only two Northern states among the 10-most obese ones.
There was a glimmer of hope for South Carolina in the new study's findings, which were based on federal health standards.
The Palmetto State ranks 13th in the proportion of children who are obese, with 33.7 percent of those ages 10-17 fitting the federal classification.
Despite the high obesity rate among young people, the fact that, relative to other states, South Carolina adults fare worse than its children suggest that its efforts to combat childhood obesity may at least be starting to take hold.
The S.C. General Assembly passed a 2004 law, the Student Health and Fitness Act, that's been phased in since then. It requires children to get at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week and funds the hiring of more highly trained physical education teachers.
At the same time, the state government's budget crisis, with $1 billion in cuts in the last year, have slowed those efforts and blunted much of the progress toward producing leaner young people.
Kromm said other factors -- linked to poverty but separate from Southern cultural and cuisine habits -- also help explain South Carolina's obesity problems.
Relatively poor states have more people who live far from large grocery stores that sell the widest variety of fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods, Kromm said.
As a result, people in impoverished areas tend to eat more often at fast-food outlets and to shop more often at convenience stores, he said.
"For a lot of people, sheer convenience is one of the leading factors in determining where they get their food," Kromm said.
Woodward said South Carolinians can boost the economy and reduce their waistlines by shopping at farmers markets and seeking out local produce elsewhere.
"The best thing they can do is buy high-quality local food, especially fresh vegetables and fruits," he said. "This is a time when we should focus our state on supporting our farmers and eating better."
Tipping the scales
More South Carolinians are fighting the battle of the bulge than were confronting the problem in 2006, when the state was No. 8 in obesity rankings. The 11 fattest states -- two tied for 10th -- and the share of their residents classified as obese under federal health standards:
1. Mississippi..........32.5 percent
2. Alabama..........31.2 percent
3. West Virginia..........31.1 percent
4. Tennessee...........30.2 percent
5. South Carolina........29.7 percent
6. Oklahoma..........29.5 percent
8. Louisiana..........28.9 percent
9. Michigan..........28.8 percent
10. Arkansas..........28.6 percent
10. Ohio..........28.6 percent
For a look at the report by two health-advocacy groups, go to: http://healthyamericans.org/reports/obesity2009/