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Obesity Still Poses Serious Threat to Public Health

By Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D.

This piece was published in the Dallas Morning News and the Akron Beacon Journal.

Is the obesity epidemic over? Can we call off the fight against fat and stop worrying about unhealthy eating habits? Many Americans are now asking such questions—but not because we’ve actually won the battle of the bulge.

Credit instead a public relations offensive launched by major players in the food industry. In recent months, these companies have used intermediary organizations to pour huge sums of money into newspaper ads and television commercials that dismiss concerns about obesity as “hype” generated by some vast conspiracy of government health officials.

As a nutritionist, I have lost patience with such arguments, which are not supported by the scientific facts. Despite the PR smokescreen, obesity and high-fat diets continue to pose grave threats to public health.

To understand how grave, we need only examine the food industry’s favorite piece of ammunition in this debate—a genuine scientific disagreement over how many people die from obesity each year. Two different groups of researchers associated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come to very different conclusions about the death toll associated with obesity.

Such divergent results are not uncommon in science, especially in population-based studies that use information from a subset of individuals to draw conclusions about a much larger group. Future studies will probably clarify this issue. But here’s the bottom line: Even if the lowest estimate of about 26,000 annual deaths turns out to be correct, obesity is currently killing more Americans every year than does AIDS.

And obesity doesn’t have to end a life to change it forever. Studies have shown that being even moderately overweight can double the risk of heart disease and triple the risk of diabetes. For the 30 percent of Americans who are actually clinically obese—that is, who have a body mass index of 30 or higher—the medical risks are even more serious.

Hypertension, arthritis, high cholesterol levels, and other obesity-related health problems can sometimes be managed with medication and treatment, as the food industry likes to point out. But the cost is staggering. Between 1987 and 2002, the proportion of private health spending attributable to obesity increased more than tenfold, according to a study just published in the journal Health Affairs.

Quality of life also takes a huge hit. If you suffer from obesity-related arthritis, the chronic pain and impaired mobility imposed by this condition will probably matter much more to you than whether you make it all the way to your government-projected life expectancy.

Furthermore, even when unhealthy eating habits don’t make you obese, they still increase the risk of chronic disease. Researchers have piled up a mountain of scientific studies showing that high-fat, meat-centered diets increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and several types of cancer—even in people who are not seriously overweight.

American consumers have a choice to make. We can keep chowing down on hotdogs, fried chicken, and ice cream, even as scientists try to figure out exactly how many of us will die as a result of our super-sized addictions to high-fat, high-cholesterol foods.

Or we can start making healthy changes. Losing weight can be as simple as eating more fruits and vegetable and fewer calorie-dense foods such as cheese and meat, according to recent research at Pennsylvania State University.

Better diets can have other dramatic results. In a study published in May in the Annals of Internal Medicine, participants who ate a low-fat vegetarian diet saw their levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) drop by an average of almost 10 percent in just one month. 

The facts are clear: Obesity is a real problem. It’s time for a real solution.

Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., is a senior nutrition scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the author of Healthy Eating for Life for Children.


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