Outside editorial: Getting a grip on the obesity debate

Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2008

So are too many Americans too fat - or not? According to contrarian views of the obesity/overweight issue, the concern is overblown. A Johns Hopkins professor recently coauthored a book that challenges the link between health problems and obesity. Some naysayers suggest the antifat campaign is a concoction of the multibillion-dollar weight loss industry, designed to scare people into signing up. Or that it has become a moral crusade designed to marginalize groups (including the poor) that have higher rates of being overweight.

But don't relax and reach for that extra bag of chips just yet. Instead, weigh the evidence.

Over 30 years of solid research confirm the serious health and economic consequences of America's battle of the bulge. According to the national Centers for Disease Control (CDC), obesity rates leveled off last year, but are still unacceptably high, at 34 percent of U.S. adults. That equals nearly 72 million people, across all races, incomes and age groups, who carry much more than a few extra pounds.

As CDC and local Minnesota health experts attest, the negative effects of obesity on health are well documented. Since 1980, the average weight of Americans and those in other developed nations has increased along with rates of high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Obesity costs the nation billions through increased medical bills and loss of productivity.

Ever-widening waistlines have been even harder on the health of children. Three decades ago, 5 to 7 percent of kids were obese; by 2003 that percentage had grown to 17 to 19 percent. And pediatricians see much higher incidence of diseases like Type II diabetes - a condition that used to be rare among kids.

Of course, a variety of changing conditions have contributed to American weight gain. TVs, computers and using cars for most trips lead to more sedentary lifestyles. The availability of inexpensive fast food leads people to eat more. Consumption of processed, high-calorie food also packs on the pounds.

In addition, American culture tends to emphasize extremes. On one hand, media and fashion images convince many girls and women that the ideal size is 0. On the other side, many restaurant food portions have been supersized through the roof. And too often, when that mountain of food arrives diners are ready to eat it all. The conflicted culture runs so deep that this country has increases in anorexia and obesity at the same time.

But that doesn't have to be the case. Despite the naysayers, the public education effort to get people exercising, eating sensibly and losing weight is a campaign worth waging. Public pressure helped reduce smoking and can help slim down America. Striving to reach and maintain healthy weights will save lives and health-care dollars, reduce disease and injury and improve quality of life.

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