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Archived fact-check of Tommy Thompson on obesity

Editor's note: This fact-check is an archive of a statement we have since re-rated. The new rating is Mostly False. Read the new fact-check here.

Headline: Wisconsin below average in obesity, former governor Tommy Thompson says

"Wisconsin is not as obese as the national average is. The national average, 35.7 percent of the population is obese. In Wisconsin, it's closer to 26 percent."

Tommy Thompson on Wednesday, September 25th, 2013 in an interview

Is Wisconsin below average in obesity?

Since losing to Democrat Tammy Baldwin in a U.S. Senate race in 2012, former Republican Wisconsin governor and U.S. health and human services secretary Tommy Thompson has put energy into getting the nation into better shape.

Thompson -- who, at 70, showed during the campaign he could do 50 push-ups -- gave a speech in Madison on Sept. 25, 2013, about obesity in America.

In an interview the same day with WISC-TV (Channel 3) in Madison, Thompson made a claim that might surprise those us who push our love handles out of the way to make sure we don’t miss a belt loop.

After Thompson stated that "we are not very healthy in America," one of his interviewers said, "Well, in Wisconsin, it’s a particular battle. We’re always battling. We’re one of the fattest states in the country."

Thompson responded by saying:

"Yes, we are (battling)," he said. "But you know something, but you look at the statistics, and across the board, and Wisconsin is not as obese as the national average is. The national average, 35.7 percent of the population is obese. In Wisconsin, it's closer to 26 percent.

"So, one out of four, versus one out of three. That’s still not very good, but the truth of the matter is, we’re healthier. But we have to do a better job, in Wisconsin as well as across the country."

Beer-bellied Wisconsin has less-than-average obesity?

What’s "obese?"

We went to the CDC, a corner tavern, to check on Thompson’s claim.

Just kidding.

CDC, of course, is short for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It defines obesity as something less than you might imagine.

Height and weight are used to calculate a body mass index. Your BMI determines whether you’re considered obese. Here’s how the CDC regards an adult who is 5-feet-9:

Weight range in pounds

Body Mass Index


124 or less

Below 18.5




Healthy weight




203 or more

30 or higher


The CDC notes that, although BMI is correlated with body fat, it doesn’t actually measure body fat. So, some people, such as athletes, may have a BMI that identifies them as overweight even though they do not have excess body fat.

At the same time, obesity is associated with heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.

Now, that Uncle Sam has us feeling unduly chubby, let’s check Thompson’s claim against the statistics.

Obesity around the U.S.

The first stat on the adult obesity page of the CDC’s website says 35.7 percent of U.S. adults are obese, just as Thompson stated.

That’s up from 15 percent during the period of 1976 to 1980, according to the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, two non-profits that team up to produce "F As in Fat" annual reports.

The 35.7 percent is an estimate that came from a January 2012 federal study of obesity in America for 2009-2010. There was no significant difference in the obesity rate between men and women at any age. But overall, adults aged 60 and over were more likely to be obese than younger adults.

As for the states, the most recent CDC estimates are for 2012. The portion of adults said to be obese ranged from 20.5 percent in Colorado to 34.7 percent in Louisiana.

Wisconsin ranked 15th at 29.7 percent -- which, as Thompson indicated, is closer to 26 percent than it is to the national average of 35.7 percent.

(Wisconsin ranked No. 1 in obesity among African-Americans, at 49.4 percent, in a December 2012 report by the United Health Foundation.)

Here’s how Wisconsin compared with neighboring states:


Percentage of all adults obese in 2012











Our rating

Thompson said: "Wisconsin is not as obese as the national average is. The national average, 35.7 percent of the population is obese. In Wisconsin, it's closer to 26 percent."

Thompson was correct on the national average of 35.7 percent. Wisconsin’s rate, 29.7 percent, is closer to 26 percent.

We rate Thompson’s statement True.

About this statement:

Published: Monday, October 7th, 2013 at 5:00 a.m.

Subjects: Cancer, Health Care, Public Health


Youtube, WISC-TV interview (quote at 2:40) of Tommy Thompson, Sept. 25, 2013

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adult obesity page

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Prevalence of obesity in the United States, 2009-2010," January 2012

Trust for America’s Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, "F As in Fat -- How Obesity Threatens America’s Future, 2013," August 2013

Interview and email interview, Trust for America’s Health communications manager Albert Lang, Oct. 1, 2013

Written by: Tom Kertscher
Researched by: Tom Kertscher
Edited by: Greg Borowski