According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one third of all adults and 17 percent of all children in the United States are obese. Obesity rates doubled for adults in the past three decades and tripled for children, and show no signs of decreasing in the near future. The CDC lists some of the health problems that stem from obesity as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, several types of cancer, stroke and high cholesterol. Obesity needs to be addressed by individuals, communities and government.
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What Is Obesity?
Obesity is defined as a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or more, according to the Obesity Society. You can calculate your BMI by dividing your weight in pounds by your height in inches squared, then multiplying by 704.5. Obesity results from consuming more calories than the body uses, which results in stored fat. Super-size portions and sedentary lifestyles, say nutrition experts Marian Nestle and Michael F. Jacobson, have contributed to a public health epidemic.
Fast food, soda, hot dogs and other high-calorie food products like potato chips and sugary cereals are ubiquitous and cheap in the U.S. dietary landscape. Unfortunately, most are also nutritionally empty. To prevent overweight and obesity, the U.S. Surgeon General recommends a nutritious diet that follows the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Surgeon General also advocates that adults get 30 minutes of exercise most days, and children a full hour. Easy ways to incorporate more physical exercise include taking the stairs instead of the elevator, using a push mower instead of a power mower and parking the car at the far end of a store's lot to get in more steps. Encourage children to play outside instead of watching TV after school.
The burden of solving the obesity problem has largely fallen on individuals, report Nestle and Jacobson, but communities must also pitch in. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, recommends that communities make fresh fruit and vegetable stands available at workplaces instead of vending machines carrying high-fat, empty-calories snacks. Nutritionist Isobel R. Contento reports on the success of programs that connect schools with local farms, which supply fresh produce for the school menu or stock cafeteria salad bars. One study, notes Contento, saw a 200 percent increase in sales of carrots in a school cafeteria when prices were lowered 50 percent. In another study, raising the price of higher-fat cafeteria options boosted sales of more nutritious items. The CDC also suggests communities improve outdoor recreational areas.
Government, too, must get involved in solving the obesity problem, say Nestle and Jacobson. Some of the policy changes they recommend include requiring that calorie, fat and sugar content be clearly marked on snacks sold in movie theaters; creating an incentive program to encourage those who receive food stamps to use them for healthy food choices; and providing more funding to communities for physical recreation centers and bicycle paths. Launched in 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama's national initiative, "Let's Move," recommends that local municipalities take actions such as forming a committee to investigate the barriers to healthful eating in the city or town, and offering incentives to stores to stock healthier food and drink choices, especially in underserved areas.
- Nutrition Education: Linking Research, Theory, and Practice; Isobel R. Contento; 2010
- Public Health Reports: Halting the Obesity Epidemic: A Public Health Policy Approach; Marion Nestle, Ph.D., MPH, and Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Recommended Community Strategies and Measurements to Prevent Obesity in the United States
- Office of the Surgeon General: The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity
- The Obesity Society: What Is Obesity