Obesity in America: Inevitable?


As suggested by the intense interest in Syndrome X and low-carbohydrate diets (see cover story), America has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 46 percent of all U.S. adults were overweight or obese in the late 1970s. By the early 1990s the figure had climbed to 55 percent. During the same period, rates in teens almost doubled.

While obesity may be great for certain businesses--weight-loss franchises, the diet-book industry, and makers of exercise equipment, to name a few--it increases the risk of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Also, it can undermine self-esteem and social and business success.

The rising rates of obesity certainly don't reflect new genetic mutations or something in the air we breathe. Rather, they reflect human ingenuity--the ingenuity that has led to three-car households, the movement of jobs from farms and mines to offices, and 670-calorie Cinnabons. As a result, it is easier than ever to consume more--and expend fewer--calories. The U.S. has become a hothouse for obesity. While diet books, weight-loss counseling, and other approaches might help some people lose weight (at least temporarily), the real challenge is to adopt a lifestyle that helps us maintain a normal weight throughout our lives.

Serious efforts to prevent obesity would involve getting people out of cars and on to mass transit, bike paths, and sidewalks; having daily physical education in every school; and encouraging couch potatoes to become bikers, hikers, and joggers. Nutritionists would encourage people to cut calories by eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer burgers, fries, pizzas, sweets, and junk foods. Restaurants would offer cheaper half portions, and menus would list calories for standard meals. Major mass-media campaigns (perhaps funded in part by small taxes on junk foods) would encourage the public to make physical activity and sensible eating a daily habit.

On May 30 and 31, the federal government will sponsor a National Nutrition Summit, which will explore ways to prevent obesity and other chronic diseases. I hope that the meeting focuses on the systemic changes that are needed to promote the public's health and serves as a springboard for bold government programs.

Time will tell whether our nation chooses a lifestyle built around fitness-or gluttony and sloth.



By Michael F. Jacobson, Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest

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