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