Obesity is considered an epidemic in the United States – and Colorado has not been immune to the problem.

Although the state is the thinnest in the nation, with an obesity rate of 19.1 percent (compared to 26.6 percent nationwide), the problem is growing – contributing to increasing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and asthma rates.

But there’s a new nonprofit organization whose goal is to halt the rise of obesity – LiveWell Colorado has received $34.1 million to help prevent obesity.

“We plan to use this money for a variety of efforts on the local level,” said Maren Steward, chief executive officer and president. “We want to have access to healthy food, opportunities for physical activity. Focus on things we know work: proven, evidenced-based ideas.”

The group plans to reduce the health disparity in the state related to nutrition, physical activity and obesity. Men are more likely to be overweight than women, and blacks and Hispanics are slightly more likely to be obese.

LiveWell pays for two programs in El Paso County: LiveWell Fountain and LiveWell Colorado Springs. The Fountain program has been funded for four years; Colorado Springs is still in the planning stages for its grant.

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Stewart has been on the job for slightly more than a month, and said the group’s strategic plan is “at a high level, but I’ll be working to break those goals down to measurable, proven actions.”

The grant money – $17.1 million from the Colorado Health Foundation, $16 million from Kaiser Permanente and $1 million from the Kresge Foundation – will serve to place the organization in a “leadership position,” Stewart said.

“We don’t want a one-size-fits-all approach, one that works in one area might not work in another,” she said. “We want each community to make the plan their own – some are working with school districts, others are working with community organizations.”

Officials at the Colorado Health Foundation said the money was given to create a “collaborative effort.”

“Together, we will make Colorado the healthiest state in the nation,” said Anne Warhover, president and CEO.

Information from the Colorado Physical Activity and Nutrition Program and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that only 44.7 percent of people in Colorado are at a healthy weight.

But the fight to prevent obesity could be an uphill battle. An examination of efforts to prevent obesity in England, Australia and the United States shows that most efforts focus on providing the public with education and behavioral skills, not on environmental change.

And those efforts, studies show, don’t work.

Four studies that focused on six to 12 education sessions, information about dietary change and physical activity show that educational intervention alone doesn’t produce long-term effectiveness in preventing weight gain, said David Crawford, associate professor in the School of Health Sciences at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia.

“The few weight gain prevention studies that have been attempted have had only limited success,” he said. “Given the threats to the health of populations posed by obesity, why have greater efforts not been made to prevent it? It is only in the past five years that obesity has become recognized as an issue that warrants preventive action.”

He said health care providers don’t yet understand what determines whether someone is prone to obesity or where it is best to intervene.

“Undoubtedly, the need to prevent obesity is urgent,” he said. “Similarly, there can be no doubt of the need for research to underpin the development of population strategies.”

Amy Gillentine covers health care for the Colorado Springs Business Journal.