A Growing Epidemic

By the year 2015, 75 percent of all Americans will be overweight or obese, and obesity will outrank tobacco as the number one preventable killer of Americans, according to a study by John Hopkins University.

Already two-thirds of the U.S. adult population is overweight or obese, as are 16 percent of today’s children. The growing epidemic of childhood obesity is especially alarming. For the first time in history, life expectancy is actually decreasing. If something is not done to immediately curtail this childhood trend, we will be the first generation of adults to bury our kids, rather than the reverse.

Excess weight is a leading contributor to a host of chronic illnesses including the onset of Type II Diabetes. Currently 24 million Americans (two million Texans) are diagnosed with this disease, and another 56 million are pre-diabetic. Our health care system, already strained, reels from the $116 billion spent annually to treat existing cases of diabetes, while another 1.6 million new cases are diagnosed each year. Already facing critical shortages, there will not be enough doctors, nurses or hospitals to handle the burgeoning load if this epidemic is not stopped.

Quality of life is severely impacted, too. A survey of 51 patients, who had been diagnosed with Type II diabetes as children, revealed that before these young individuals could reach 35 years of age (the prime of life) two had died of a heart attack, three were on dialysis, one had gone blind and one had already required an amputation.

What Happened?

In The End to Overeating, author David Kessler notes that for thousands of years human body weight remained stable; overweight individuals were the exception. “Millions of calories passed through our bodies, yet with rare exceptions our weight neither rose nor fell by any significant amount. A perfect biological system seemed to be at work.” Then in the 1980s something changed.

Government survey data collected between 1988 and 1991 revealed that the number of overweight people had spiked dramatically. “In fewer than a dozen years eight percent more Americans – about 20 million people – had joined the ranks of the overweight,” Kessler writes. That number is continuing to climb each year.

If our bodies haven’t changed, what has?

In the last 30 years not only has our food changed dramatically, so has our consumption of it. Today we lead such frantic-paced lives that it’s necessary to eat out or prepare convenient, packaged foods. There are more fast food drive thrus, more neighborhood restaurants, and larger portion sizes; and we are bombarded with food advertisements as 17,000 new products hit the grocery shelves each year.

In the DVD, Lighten Up: Weighing In On The Weight Debate, nutritionist Jeff Novick compiles and summarizes data tracked by the United States Department of Agriculture for more than 100 years. He found that while individual consumption of red meat dropped 22 percent in the 70s, we now consume more than twice the amount of poultry and 37 percent more seafood than before.

During that same period our intake of total fat increased 61 percent, driven up predominately by intake of “added fats” (the hidden fats the food industry adds to fried foods, baked goods, crackers, chips, etc.) which shot up 220 percent.

Consumption of “healthy” salad oils, (olive and canola), rose an amazing 225 percent. Oil, whether considered healthy or not, is the most calorie-dense food we can eat with twice the amount of calories of carbohydrates and proteins. One tablespoon of olive oil has approximately 120 calories, yet because it is deemed “healthy” we use it liberally – on everything.

Our consumption of added sugars, such as the corn syrup that is also often found in processed foods, as well as in our super-sized soft drinks and fruit drinks, increased a monstrous 486 percent.

Today, we also eat three times more cheese than we did in the 70s; consuming 81 percent more American Cheese, 75 percent more Cheddar and an amazing 462 percent more low-fat cottage cheese. Even more startling is the 645 percent increase in Italian cheeses such as mozzarella, asiago, parmesan, etc.

The weight crisis is not a mystery. Over the last few decades as our food and eating habits have changed, our total calorie consumption has increased nearly 20 percent, and unfortunately the bottom line still our weight remains a factor of calories in versus calories out.

What Can We Do

Since so much of our food today is prepared for us, either at restaurants or by food manufacturers, part of the solution rests with us arming ourselves with knowledge, and becoming better-informed consumers. Kessler’s book provides great insight into food industry practices that zero in on our human physiology and psychology, leaving us vulnerable to overeating and food addictions.

Research has proven that “eating foods high in sugar, fat and salt makes us want to eat more foods high in sugar, fat and salt,” Kessler writes. The food industry, seeking its “share of our wallet,” intentionally designs products loaded with these three ingredients which we, unsuspectingly, find bet-you-can’t-eat-just-one-irresistible, and mindlessly over consume.

Just because it is available on grocery shelves and restaurant menus, doesn’t mean we have to eat it, especially once we are aware of the potential trap. With access to calorie counts for all restaurant menu items and product labels that clearly identify the amount of added fats, sugars and refined carbohydrates in products we can begin to make better, more sensible choices.

We can win the battle one bite at a time.

Author’s Note: This appeared in the September/October 2010 issues of Life is Good Magazine.