JACKSON, Miss. – Experts say Mississippians need to skip the gravy, say no to the fried pickles and start taking brisk walks to fight an epidemic of obesity.
According to a new study, this Deep South state is the fattest in the nation. The Trust for America's Health, a research group that focuses on disease prevention, says Mississippi is the first state where more than 30 percent of adults are considered obese.
Aside from making Mississippi the butt of late-night talk show jokes, the obesity epidemic has serious implications for public policy.
If current trends hold, the state could face enormous increases in the already significant costs of treating diabetes, heart disease and other ailments caused by the extra poundage.
"We've got a long way to go. We love fried chicken and fried anything and all the grease and fatback we can get in Mississippi," said Democratic state Rep. Steve Holland, chairman of the Public Health Committee.
Poverty and obesity often go hand in hand, doctors say, because poor families stretch their budgets by buying cheaper, processed foods that have higher fat content and lower nutritional value.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — a self-described "recovering foodaholic" who lost 110 pounds several years ago — explained during a Southern Governors' Association meeting in Biloxi last weekend that there are historical reasons poor people often fry their foods: It's an inexpensive way to increase the calories and feed a family.
Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation, and the Delta is the poorest region of Mississippi.
Dr. Marshall Bouldin, director of the diabetes and metabolism center at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, told the Southern governors that if the Delta counties were excluded, "Mississippi would wind up being about 30th in diabetes problems in the United States."
Mississippi's public schools already are taking steps to prevent obesity.
A new state law enacted this year requires schools to provide at least 150 minutes of physical activity instruction and 45 minutes of health education instruction each week for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. Until now, gym class had been optional.
The state Department of Education also is phasing in restrictions on soft drinks and snacks.
All public schools are currently banned from selling full-calorie soft drinks to students. Next academic year, elementary and middle schools will allow only water, juice and milk, while high schools will allow only water, juice, sports drinks and diet soft drinks.
The state Department of Education publishes lists of snacks that are approved or banned for sale in school vending machines. Last school year, at least 50 percent of the vending offerings had to be from the approved list. That jumped to 75 percent this year and will reach 100 percent next year.
Among the approved snacks are yogurt, sliced fruit and granola bars, while fried pork rinds and marshmallow treats are banned. One middle school favorite — Flamin' Hot Cheetos — are on the approved list if they're baked but banned if they're not.
State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds said he hopes students will take home the healthful habits they learn at school.
"We only have students 180 days out of the year for seven hours in a school day. The important thing is that we model what good behavior looks like," Bounds said Monday after finishing a lunch of baked chicken.
Bounds ate at a Jackson buffet that's popular with state legislators. On Monday, the buffet included traditional, stick-to-your-ribs Southern fare: fried chicken, grits, fried okra, turnip greens.
Dr. William Rowley, who worked 30 years as a vascular surgeon and now works at the Institute for Alternative Futures, said if current trends continue, more than 50 percent of adult Mississippians will be obese in 2015.
Holland, who helps set the state Medicaid budget, said he worries about the taxpayers' cost of treating obesity.
"If we don't change our ways," he said, "we're going to be in the funeral parlors ... because we're going to be all fat and dead."