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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Update: The Obesity Epidemic-What’s the Latest?

Most Jinifit blog readers are far from obese.  But, judging from some of the stories you’ve told me, some of you once were.  Sadly, many have family members with weight-related health concerns. That’s why I decided to bring you the latest on the obesity epidemic; to see what good news there is…(I’m trying to think positive.)  

The sad truth                                                                                                                                       

Much has been written about the obesity epidemic in this country and the growing concern about obesity abroad.  The reports are everywhere-in every local, national, and global publication and media outlet.  Americans keen on finding “evidence” of this epidemic (should they find it necessary), need look no further than their local theme park or Las Vegas resort (see accompanying photo) for a live, up close and personal peek at the American body-at-large.  And is it ever…large.  The news stories only remind us what we already know: America is fat.

The statistics

During the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States and rates remain high. To date, about one-third of U.S. adults (33.8%) are obese. Approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese. In 2010, no state had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%. Thirty-six states had a prevalence of 25% or more; 12 of these states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan,
Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia) had a prevalence of 30% or more.  Mississippi had the highest rate of obesity at 34.4% while Colorado had the lowest rate at 19.8%. It is the only state with a rate below 20% (but next year will probably be above.)

It appears that there are other factors at work here as well. High school dropouts have the highest rates of obesity (32.8%) and households that make less than $15,000 have a 33.8% obesity rate while households that have an income above $50,000 have “only” a 24.6% obesity rate.*

Every month, The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Office of Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Laboratory Services collects data in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam for its Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS).  It is the world’s largest, on-going telephone health survey system, tracking health conditions and risk behaviors in the United States yearly since 1984. Since that time, obesity trends have continued to climb.*

Practical methodology

The data for the survey are collected on the basis of self-reported weight and height with obesity being defined as one having a body mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher.  The body mass index is a measure of an adult’s weight in relation to his or her height (weight in kilograms divided by the square of his or her height in meters.)*  

While BMI is the current medical standard used in gathering statistical data concerning healthy weight ranges, there are problems with this method as it doesn’t take into account whether the weight being measured is muscle weight or fat.  Using this definition then, Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant, George Clooney, and Matt Damon, would all be considered “borderline obese.”  Nevertheless, a reliable way of tracking these trends is necessary, and BMI, in spite of its limitations is the best method available at the present time.  Furthermore, the vast majority of those taking part in the CDC’s data research, are not athletes or actors and would tend to be appropriately measured.

Improvement…or lack thereof

Reasons for the continued epidemic point to the usual suspects: poor diet, sedentary lifestyles, genetic factors, time spent in front of computers, and a lack of exercise. Overall, 75 percent of American adults and nearly one-third of children and teens are currently obese or overweight. 

It should be quite clear to everyone that whatever agricultural policies, public health policies, and dietary recommendations we've employed in the US so far have been and still are severely flawed, because they're not making even the slightest dent in this epidemic.**

What is at the root of the problem?

The carbohydrate connection

Let’s take a look at just the dietary component.  Severely restricting carbohydrates (sugars, fructose, and grains) in your diet, and increasing healthy fat consumption would have a huge impact on obesity in this country.**

While health authorities insist that sugar is fine "in moderation," and that grains are an essential part of a healthy diet and can actually help you prevent heart disease, they fail to take into consideration that:

Fructose is the NUMBER ONE source of calories in the US. This means it's far from "moderate," and this is not at all surprising when you consider that fructose, primarily in the form of cheap high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), is in just about everything. If everyone could easily keep their total grams of fructose to below about 25 grams per day, we would start seeing some radical changes in these crazy statistics in short order. But the key issue is that while that is theoretically possible, precious few people are actually doing it, and the reliance on processed food is the primary reason for this failure. This is largely because the majority of fructose is hidden in all these processed foods so that it becomes very difficult to see just how much fructose you're consuming every single day.**

Refined carbohydrates (breakfast cereals, bagels, waffles etc) quickly break down into sugar, increase your insulin levels, and cause insulin resistance, which is the number one underlying factor of nearly every chronic disease known to man, including heart disease.**

Saturated Fats-Friend or Foe?
Fats in general are considered the dietary villains, especially saturated fat, which many people still claim will increase your risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease. However, this is simply untrue. The only really dangerous fat out there is trans fat (margarine, vegetable oils), which for a long time were touted as the answer to that heart-harming saturated fat.  Saturated fats are indeed good for you. They provide the building blocks for your cell membranes and a variety of hormones and hormone like substances that are essential to your health, and saturated fats from animal and vegetable sources (such as meat, dairy, certain oils, and tropical plants like coconut) provide a concentrated source of energy in your diet—a source of energy that is far more ideal than carbohydrates.**

Critical mass

Then there’s this: In January of this year, Pam Belluck of the New York Times wrote the following: Obesity Rates Hit Plateau in U.S., Data Suggest.  Her findings were surprising: 

...Obesity rates have remained constant for at least five years among men and for closer to 10 years among women and children-long enough for experts to say the percentage of very overweight people has leveled off. But the percentages have topped out at very high numbers.

….Some experts, though, were not optimistic that the leveling off was a result of improved eating and exercise habits.  “Until we see rates improving, not just staying the same, we can’t have any confidence that our lifestyle has improved,” said Dr. David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children’s Hospital Boston.

Dr. Ludwig said the plateau might just suggest that “we’ve reached a biological limit” to how obese people could get. When people eat more, he said, at first they gain weight; then a growing share of the calories go “into maintaining and moving around that excess tissue,” he continued, so that “a population doesn’t keep getting heavier and heavier indefinitely.”

Furthermore, Dr. Ludwig said, “it could be that most of the people who are genetically susceptible, or susceptible for psychological or behavioral reasons, have already become obese.”***

What is this? The “critical mass” of obesity? (no pun intended.) Can our bodies actually be finding ways to biologically adapt to the increase of fatty tissue? Scary stuff.

What it all means

The financial cost of this epidemic has been staggering to our already fragile economy and in the richest most “advanced” society on earth, the US is ranked only 36th in life expectancy with countries like The United Arab Emirates, Cuba, Costa Rica, and most European nations living longer.  Notwithstanding the nationalized healthcare debate, the obesity epidemic and subsequent chronic disease conditions it has spawned, is largely to blame.

The lack of participation in physical activity is also to blame.  With Americans now working longer hours than ever before (often behind a desk), it is assumed that they simply don’t have the time, the energy, or the inclination to exercise. Or, they lack the knowledge about how to exercise, are suffering from injuries or health conditions, and simply dislike exercising.  While I doubt that any of this isn’t true, our health and quality of life should supersede the myriad excuses we make not to become educated about our own basic needs. Finding time to exercise can be challenging but in today’s fitness world, I wonder, has the news of the trend toward shorter, but more intense workouts even reached the mainstream?  Do people understand that many of the conditions they believe are keeping them from exercising would greatly diminish by engaging in some light physical activity and progressing from there? Or is the only thing we’re learning, are more excuses for not exercising?

So, about that good news...there isn’t any…yet.


 *Source: U.S. Obesity Trends: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

**Source:  What Caused America to go From Fit to Fat?  Dr. Joseph Mercola

***Source: The New York Times: Obesity Rates Hit Plateau in U.S., Data Suggest


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