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Obesity Epidemic

by Humphrey Taylor - Creators Syndicate

In the early 1990s, I enjoyed my 15 seconds (if not 15 minutes) of fame when I was widely quoted as writing that "Americans are the fattest people on earth and getting fatter every year." Alas, the trend continues.

Every year since 1983, Harris Interactive has asked a nationwide cross section of adults several questions to determine how many are overweight and underweight, using the Metropolitan Life tables based on weight, height and body frame.

The Harris Poll, which also measures smoking behavior and seat belt use, was conducted with a nationwide cross section of 1,011 adults interviewed by telephone between Jan. 16-21, 2002, finds that:

  • Among people over 25 (the population for which the Metropolitan Life tables were developed) 80 percent of the public are overweight, up from 58 percent in 1983, 64 percent in 1990 and 71 percent in 1995.

  • Fully 33 percent are now 20 percent overweight, a reasonable measure of obesity, compared to 15 percent in 1983, 16 percent in 1990, and 22 percent in 1995. In other words, obesity has more than doubled from less than one-sixth of the population 18 years ago to one-third today.

  • While the proportion of adults who smoke cigarettes is down to 23 percent in this survey, this is a decline of only seven points (from 30 percent) since 1983, and of three points (from 26 percent) since 1990. Indeed, all the modest changes in the smoking rate, as we have measured it over the last few years, are within the possible sampling error for this survey. So, if there has been any reduction in the smoking rate over the last decade, it has been extremely modest.

  • Eighty-one percent of all adults say that they now wear seat belts when in the front seat of a car. This is a huge increase over the 19 percent who said this in 1983, the 65 percent in 1990 and the 73 percent in 1995. This is perhaps the biggest single success story on public health over the last 20 years. One reason for this huge change was the laws passed in the 1980s by states to mandate seat belt use. It's a powerful example that legislation, even when weakly enforced as it is in most states, can change both attitudes and behavior very dramatically. Another reason is that unlike smoking cessation or weight control seat belt use requires no self-discipline, no sacrifice of gratification and no need to overcome addiction. There is gain without pain.

  • Obesity continues to increase even though many people are trying to lose weight, and a surprisingly large number claim to have been successful. This survey found that:

  • Most people (60 percent) say they would like to lose weight, including 72 percent of those who are overweight (as well as some of those who are not).

  • A similar proportion of all adults (58 percent) say they have made a serious effort to lose weight, including 65 percent of those who are overweight now (and substantial numbers who are not overweight).

  • More than half (57 percent) of those who say they successfully lost weight say they have managed to stay at more or less the same weight. This represents 28 percent of all adults.

So what? The health impact of obesity: A recent issue of Issue Focus published by Grantmakers in Health reports that: "According to U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking. The conditions are already responsible for as many as 300,000 premature deaths each year and cost the nation $117 billion in 2000 alone.

Excess Pounds, Extra Problems

Obesity is associated with an increased risk for:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Gallbladder diseases
  • Asthma
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Depression
  • Complications in pregnancy
  • Sleep apnea

"While individual body weight has a complex set of causes, most researchers attribute the recent increase in obesity among both adults and children to two simple facts: We are eating more and exercising less. In the 1990s, Americans consumed more food and several hundred more calories per day than they did in the 1970s. Why? Fewer meals were eaten at home, average portion sizes grew, and the availability of convenience foods foods that are high in fat and sugar exploded."

Dr. Louis Aronne, clinical associate professor of medicine at Weill Medical College at Cornell University in New York City and one of the nation's leading obesity experts, believes that if Americans were to focus on lowering their body mass index just a few points, the associated health benefits would be enormous. Body mass index, or BMI, is determined by a measurement based on height and weight. It is the most frequent tool doctors use to determine a person's degree of obesity and how it correlates with other health risks.

"We're not talking about unrealistic goals," says Dr. Aronne. "If Americans were to make the effort to manage their weight using a variety of options, including better nutrition, more exercise, approved medications or even surgical approaches, we would be rewarded with significantly better health."

For an easy way to determine BMI, visit


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