Why Is Obesity Low in Colorado?

Of all the states in the U.S., Colorado has the lowest rate of obesity, at about 20% as of 2015. Mississippi has the highest rate at about 35%. Why is obesity low in Colorado?

Image result for obesity rates by state

What could account for the huge differences in obesity from state to state? Here’s a list of some possible factors:

  • education
  • physical activity
  • amount of processed food
  • race
  • altitude
  • radiation, both solar and background
  • vitamin D

Since this is a huge topic, I’m going to focus on the last three: altitude and three of its attributes: hypoxia, radiation, and vitamin D.

Hypoxia

A reader sent me a link to a very interesting presentation at the Ancestral Health Symposium on the possible link between hypoxia — low levels of oxygen — and lower obesity. (Everything there is copyrighted, so I won’t reproduce any of it here, but I encourage you to read it.)

The author makes the case that the high altitude of Colorado, which means less oxygen in the atmosphere, is responsible for the lower rate of obesity there. He points out that there’s also an “island” of less obesity in the Southeast, in the Appalachians, also at altitude, though lower.

A study done in 2013 found that “after adjusting for lifestyle (smoking, physical activity and diet) and demographics (age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, employment status and income)”, those living at <500 meters above sea level had about 5 times the odds of obesity as those living at >3,000 meters above sea level.1

Hypoxia may be useful in treating obesity.2

Hypoxia activates numerous cellular stress-defense mechanisms; in other words, it’s a form of hormesis.

A number of other studies support the idea that hypoxia is beneficial in obesity, although it must be pointed out that taking people to high altitude and seeing that they lose weight — which they do — doesn’t rule out other effects of altitude, such as radiation and vitamin D.3

At high altitude, basal metabolic rate increases and food intake decreases, which sounds like a hormetic effect, regardless of the exact mechanism.

Radiation

The Rocky Mountain states, of which Colorado is one, have a higher level of background radiation. Colorado Springs, for example, has about 5 times the level of background radiation as Houston, Texas.4

Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico together have about 3.2 times the level of background radiation as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and the death rate from cancer is lower in the Rocky Mountain states.

While cancer is not obesity, the same hormetic mechanisms could be expected to play a role in both.

In addition to high background radiation, higher altitude means more exposure to solar radiation, since less of the atmosphere is available to block it out.

British radiologists live longer than other physicians, and moderate dose radiation increases longevity.5 Again, the same hormetic mechanisms would likely be at work in both overall longevity and obesity.

Vitamin D

It’s difficult to untangle the effects of vitamin D from those of solar radiation. But more solar exposure leads to greater longevity.

A survey of women who had breast cancer, compared with others that had no cancer, found that both dietary vitamin D intake and solar exposure led to large risk reductions in breast cancer, from 0.35 to 0.75.6

Vitamin D levels in the blood are strongly and negatively correlated with obesity.7

Conclusion

It’s entirely possible, indeed likely in my view, that all three of these factors, hypoxia, radiation, and vitamin D play a role in the low obesity rate of Colorado.

Other factors are surely at work too, such as education and ethnic differences, but these can’t be changed.

Obesity has increased over the past few decades in Colorado, as in every other state, so whatever is causing the obesity epidemic (24/7 availability of junk food, in my view) has overridden Colorado’s advantages in that respect, to an extent.

What can this knowledge do for the obese, and for the obesity epidemic? What steps can be taken?

Hypoxia training. While training at altitude has shown solid results, the hypoxia masks recently in vogue are questionable. Therefore if you want to train in hypoxic conditions, access to high altitude would seem to be important.

This summer, I found myself doing a lot of underwater swimming. I don’t know if that would have the same effect, but I think it would.

Vitamin D. If you have little or no sun exposure, taking vitamin D supplements may be helpful. I take 5,000 IU daily myself, except in summer, when I get some sun exposure.

Solar radiation. Obvious solution here, get out in the sun more. Avoid sun-burning though. If you work a graveyard shift, or in an office all day long, you may need a concerted effort to get more sun exposure.

Background radiation. Here’s an area that’s intrigued me for some time: how to get more background radiation exposure. Some people have gone so far as to wear radioactive minerals around their necks, but given that you wouldn’t know the dose you’re getting, I don’t think I’m willing to do that. Some of the historic spas in Europe that were renowned for their curative powers may have worker their cures through high background radiation.

You could always move to Colorado.

PS: For more on how to fight obesity and live long, see my books Muscle Up, Dumping Iron, and Stop the Clock.

PPS: Check out my Supplements Buying Guide for Men.

 

  1.  Voss, Jameson D., et al. “Association of elevation, urbanization and ambient temperature with obesity prevalence in the United States.” International journal of obesity 37.10 (2013): 1407-1412.
  2.  Urdampilleta, Aritz, et al. “Usefulness of combining intermittent hypoxia and physical exercise in the treatment of obesity.” Journal of physiology and biochemistry 68.2 (2012): 289-304.
  3.  Lippl, Florian J., et al. “Hypobaric hypoxia causes body weight reduction in obese subjects.” Obesity 18.4 (2010): 675-681.
  4.  Jagger, John. “Natural background radiation and cancer death in Rocky Mountain states and Gulf Coast states.” Health Physics 75.4 (1998): 428-430.
  5.  Cameron, J. R. “Moderate dose rate ionizing radiation increases longevity.”The British journal of radiology (2014).
  6.  John, Esther M., et al. “Vitamin D and breast cancer risk: the NHANES I epidemiologic follow-up study, 1971–1975 to 1992.” Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention 8.5 (1999): 399-406.
  7.  Wortsman, Jacobo, et al. “Decreased bioavailability of vitamin D in obesity.”The American journal of clinical nutrition 72.3 (2000): 690-693.
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10 comments
Why Is Obesity Low in Colorado? – Technology and Longevity Feed says September 6, 2016

[…] Original Article: Why Is Obesity Low in Colorado? […]

Reply
Chase says September 6, 2016

Selection bias plays a huge toll as well. A whole bunch of young people are currently moving here, breaking our infrastructure since they like the outdoor lifestyle.

Obviously these people are younger and healthier, therefore less obese.

Now, once you fisheye out how to get them back, I can get back to enjoying Colorado.

Reply
    Chase says September 6, 2016

    Gah. Phone typos. Should be pretty obvious what I meant.

    Reply
    Johannes says September 6, 2016

    I don’t think it’s just the new, hipster, vegan-eating youngster-generation that brings down obesity levels in Colorado.
    Please note the described effects could also be observed in two other studies with US military personell as well as with Peruan villagers.

    Links to the relevant papers / abstracts:
    – “Lower Obesity Rate during Residence at High Altitude among a Military Population with Frequent Migration … “: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3989193/
    – “Inverse association between altitude and obesity: A prevalence study among andean and low-altitude adult individuals of Peru”: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26935008

    Regarding Dennis observation that underwater swimming had a positive effect on him.
    There appears to be a relation between Hypoxia and altitude training, they both seem to have similar physiological effects.
    Also see the Wiki article about hypoventilation training (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypoventilation_training). Supposedly it might be possible to simulate living at high altitudes by controlled hyperventilation.

    It’s certainly a very interesting topic and something that is surely pretty much ignored by the relevant authorities in the area. Exciting times!

    Reply
Gary says September 6, 2016

Done! I’ve been basking in the radon, sunlight, and CO-cool rare air for 16 years. I’m not leaving any time soon either!

As the TB Huts before them. there might be gold in Fat/Conditioning Camps up in these parts! A ‘Bicycle Resort’ opened recently a mere horsefart (when the wind is right) from where I lived on the west side of Colorado Springs near Manitou Springs. (Sadly for the relaxing bicyclists, a nearby horse stable puts an unsavory tang in that cool rocky mountain night air sometimes.) People have been coming here a long time just for the health of it. Of course, to stay for over 3 month, they have to register on Strava and maintain minimum weekly mileage and vertical feet.

I’m ready to co-found ‘The Rogue Health, Fitness and Leaning Center of Colorado’ (yes, Leaning) whenever you are, Dennis! Maybe when they’re paying us a few hundred bucks a night to feed, starve., train and condition them as nature intended, some of it might stick. Sleeping in the cool night air and spit-roasting their own meaty dinners might help too.

Free Blood-Letting for the first 10 qualified registrants!!

Just being around a seemingly higher percentage of health/fitness-minded people and having ready access to world-class outdoor areas makes it very easy for us to get out and move around more than your standard US suburb-dweller. We’re lucky to have that combo and a nice tall ladder up to our high-altitude tree-house to keep out the riff-raff.

The weak and waddled masses should probably stay at the lower elevations where their buoyancy could come in handy at least! I agree the 24/7 feeding of carb addictions, misguided advice from docs, poison on the supermarket shelves, lethargy and indifference are big contributors to this latest larding-up of the America. Your efforts to separate fact from fiction and focus on key health/fitness/aging factors certainly helps us get the word out to those who might listen and take action.

Thank you!!

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Scott Rogers says September 6, 2016

The altitude can have it’s dangers. My uncle suddenly passed away about 6 years ago. He had lived in CO for 30 years. Turns out he had been born with a congenital hard defect. One of his valves didn’t close all the way, so his heart had to pump harder. That, combined with the altitude gave him a heart 25% larger than normal at death. (caveats: it should have been caught, and if he’d been better about visiting the doctor regularly, it probably would have, also, unchecked, the defect would have gotten him eventually at sea level, the altitude just brought the event horizon closer.).

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simeon says September 6, 2016

It ain’t all sunshine and columbine though:

https://www.hcn.org/articles/is-altitude-causing-suicide-in-the-west

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Jason Roberts says September 6, 2016

Regard altitude, it would be good to know the obesity rate in Mexico City compared to Cancun for instance.

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anomie says September 8, 2016

Colorado is so lean (and it’s still sad that 20% obesity is the leanest in the country) largely because it’s at the intersection of a high percentage of white people and high income industries. All the environmental factors mentioned in the article are no doubt good for the residents, but the state’s population is selecting for people that would have an active lifestyle wherever they live but move here to make it more convenient.

Tons of Texans and Californians move here – the Texans to escape the heat and the Californians to escape absurd cost of living and a decaying state infrastructure, but either way they want to be able to enjoy getting outside but still make the kind of money they were making before moving. By and large, the people moving here are health-conscious upper-middle class to upper class whites, because that demographic tends to enjoy skiing, mountain biking, climbing, etc.

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John says March 9, 2017

Cold exposure may also be a factor

Reply
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