Lifestyle

Study: Nearly half of all Americans will be obese within two decades | Gustafson

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts that obesity rates in the United States will reach up to 42 percent of the population by the year 2030.

More than 10 percent will be classified as "morbidly obese," which is 100 pounds plus over a healthy weight range. If these predictions come true, health care costs in the U.S. will increase by well over half a trillion dollars.

The study report was presented at a conference sponsored by the CDC, titled "Weight of the Nation" (May 7-8) in Washington D.C. and simultaneously published in the American Journal for Preventive Medicine.

While it is difficult to make these kinds of forecasts, it is clear that obesity trends that started in the 1980s and 1990s continue on their paths. Currently, more than 60 percent of Americans have weight problems and over 30 percent are diagnosed as obese. Even more worrisome are the growing rates among young people. More than 20 percent of children and adolescents are obese today.

Obesity can cause a host of chronic health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and also certain forms of cancer. Many people who develop weight-related illnesses during childhood are likely to face at least some of the consequences throughout their adult-lives.

"The prospect of such increasing rates, particularly those of severely obese Americans, is alarming, especially since efforts aimed at helping people to lose weight have so far proven relatively ineffective," said Dr. Eric Finkelstein, one of the authors of the CDC report.

For a long time, the causes of obesity have been in dispute. One popular explanation is that people just eat too much and exercise too little. Some health experts say it's not that simple.

In a separate report on America's obesity epidemic that also was released at the "Weight of the Nation" conference, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that the crisis is deeply rooted in the environment we live in, which is, as the report called it, "obesogenic."

According to the IOM, it is not so much people's behavior that has changed over the past few decades but rather a number of factors that are beyond any individual's control, including agricultural policies and food manufacturing.

"When you see the increase in obesity, you ask, what changed? The answer is, the environment," said Dr. Shiriki Kumanyika, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania of Medicine and IOM committee member in an interview with Reuters. "The average person cannot maintain a healthy weight in this obesity-promoting environment."

Changes suggested

Instead of appealing to "personal responsibility," the report suggests for policy makers to pursue structural changes like shifting subsidies from corn and wheat farms to fruit and vegetable growers, creating more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and limiting the number of fast food outlets near schools and residential areas and so on. The hot-button-issue of imposing surtaxes on sodas to curb consumption was also mentioned.

The Center for Consumer Freedom, an advocacy group for the food manufacturing and restaurant industry, rejected the IOM report and argued that Americans should be free in making their own food choices but should act responsibly. It accused the IOM of joining forces with the nation's "food nannies," according to a Reuters report (May 8).

By contrast, the IOM panel said that blaming obesity on a failure of personal responsibility and individual willpower has long been used by the industry as the basis for resisting legislative and regulatory efforts to address the problem.

The costs for treating obesity and obesity-related diseases are responsible for about 20 percent of all spending on healthcare today, about $190 billion annually, not counting rising insurance premiums, lost productivity and missed work days due to illness. The IOM urges employers and insurance companies to participate more aggressively in the fight against obesity, if for no other reason than their own bottom line.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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