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Is obesity to blame for America's lagging lifespan?

'Obesogenic' society: Are all overweight people unhealthy?

by Bernard A. Lubell
Feb 08, 2011

Will America soon pay the ultimate price for our nation’s illustrious battle with indulgence?

Wednesday marks the one year anniversary of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign – a national initiative to prevent childhood obesity. But a recent report by the National Academies estimates that between 20 and 33 percent of America’s lagging lifespan is because of an expanding waistline.

“Obesogenic” society

In Chicago, preschool-aged children are twice as likely as the average American child to be overweight, according to Dr. James Galloway, United States assistant surgeon general and regional health administrator of Chicago. One in three children is considered obese in America, he said.

“We live in an obesogenic society,” said Galloway. “It’s hard for us to stay fit because everything around us tends to push us towards obesity … often times in our society the healthy choice is the harder choice.”

Along with Let’s Move, Galloway said Building a Healthier Chicago focuses on a social ecological approach that aims to impact people where they live, work, play and learn. It touches each area of life, in an attempt to make the healthy choice an easy choice.

“We also know that obesity, like many other health disparities, affects communities of color and disadvantaged populations at a substantially higher rate,” Galloway said. “Therefore, many of the same issues affect Chicago at a higher rate than anyone in the nation.”

The social ecological approach addresses Chicagoans’ environments, schools, public policy and interpersonal, community, environmental and social factors.

For example, students attending schools without recess and healthy eating options aren’t likely to stay slim, Galloway said. To help, chefs are being paired with local schools to cook healthier food. They are also working with chefs to develop healthier restaurant menus.

The other side: assumptions and stigmas

Social stigmas create the idea that all people who are overweight are not healthy, said Joanne Ikeda, nutritionist emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.

More than 50 percent of overweight adults and 30 percent of obese adults are metabolically healthy, according to a 2008 study from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Conversely, nearly 25 percent of normal-weight adults are metabolically abnormal.

Being metabolically healthy takes into account your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and risks for heart attacks, strokes, and type II diabetes.

“People who have normal weight shouldn’t feel self-satisfied,” Ikeda said. “They are at risk of the same problem of increased mortality and increased chronic disease risk if they are metabolically unhealthy.”

Ikeda said she joined Curves, a women’s fitness center, to change her lifestyle, and ended up losing 20 pounds by exercising three days a week. To her, the weight loss didn’t matter. She said whether or not she lost weight wouldn’t prevent her from working out.

“I think if we change our messages toward people and just say that no matter what size and shape you are, you need to have a healthy lifestyle,” Ikeda said. “If we continue to focus on these things that aren’t helpful and aggravate the situation then we will see more problems.”

Healthcare implications

Galloway said there are three major consequences to the obesity epidemic: human suffering, increase in demand of health care services and increased cost in healthcare services.

“Prevention is a big role in preventing the suffering, but also is allowing us to maintain our healthcare force at affordable rates.”

If you don’t have a healthy lifestyle and are overweight or obese, you’re at a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension and increased blood pressure, among other chronic illnesses, Ikeda said. But Ikeda said adopting a healthier lifestyle can eliminate these symptoms.

What you can do

If you’re overweight or obese, experts agree it’s important to adopt a healthy lifestyle. At least 30 minutes of good physical activity three days a week is imperative, Ikeda said.

“They can eat more fruits and vegetables, drink low-fat or non-fat milk and eat more whole grains.”

Ikeda said dieting doesn’t always work. She conducted a study in which she found that the heaviest people started dieting as young as the age of 13. “Starting dieting early on and repeated dieting is only a risk factor for repeated weight gain,” she said.

For the people who may fall into the metabolically healthy overweight or obese demographic, Ikeda said it could be encouraging.

“I think the research empowers large people who realize that they have the possibility of health within their grasp that they don’t have to go on another diet and they don’t have to lose weight,” she said. “They never believed they could be healthy because they were never told they could be.”