The obesity epidemic in America is increasing at a rapid pace.
More than 30 percent of the U.S. population is overweight. In Pennsylvania alone, 36 percent of adults are diagnosed as obese, a 12 percent increase from only seven years ago. In Lancaster City, 26 percent of adults are obese, and it is not only adults who are being affected. More than 15 percent of children, grades ranging from kindergarten through sixth grade are obese, and if Americans do not change their lifestyles, the numbers will continue to rise.
On September 30, students and faculty met in Caputo 210 for the third Colloquium series of the semester to hear Alice Yoder, the Director of Community Health at Lancaster General, give a lecture on, “The Obesity Epidemic: Understanding and reversing this trend.”
The lecture both shocked and educated the audience, presenting overwhelming statistical facts about the increase in obesity in America, and the problems that result from the disease.
Yoder emphasized the importance of understanding obesity, because future generations will be at a great risk of many health problems if the trend continues.
Being overweight and obese are two separate diagnoses, and differ for adults and children. For adults, being overweight is having a body mass index (BMI) of 25-30, and over 30 is considered obese. A person’s BMI is a number calculated from his or her weight and height that indicates body fat content. The formula for children and adults are the same, however, for children, overweight is being in the 85th to less than 95th weight percentile for their gender and age. Obese is equal to or greater than the 95th percentile.
Yoder’s lecture emphasized reversing the trend to prevent children from the physical and mental affects of obesity. “Any children born in 2000 on, if we keep trending the way we trend their life expectancy will be less than we are expecting,” Yoder said. Today, life expectancy is 78, a number that until now was increasing.
A statistical analysis, presented as a power point presentation, emphasized the large increase of overweight children. The percentage of overweight children aged 12- 19 has more than tripled between 1980 and 2002, going from five percent to 16 percent. For children aged 6-11 the prevalence of overweight has more than doubled, increasing from seven percent to 16 percent and among two to five year olds, the percentage has risen from seven percent to over 10 percent.
According to http://www.prevent.org, adolescents who are overweight have a 70 percent chance of being overweight as adults. The answer to this epidemic, Yoder believes, is to identify the disease early, and prevent obesity.
If obesity is not prevented, children and adults have an increase chance of developing many health problems, including: type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and some cancers. “We are finding more and more children with diabetes,” Yoder said.
Obesity also puts people at risk for developing arthritis; for every two-pound increase in body weight, the risk increases by nine to 13 percent. Women who are obese have nearly four times the risk of knee osteoarthritis and men have nearly five times the risk compared to women and men of an average weight. “More people need knee replacements, and hip replacements,” Yoder said.
Breathing problems such as sleep apnea, are also increasingly prevalent in adults and children. “This was always an adult issue. Now we are finding it in the pediatric unit,” Yoder said. Sleep apnea is a disorder in which a person cannot get air when they are sleeping. This disorder is common, but can be very serious and fatal.
Reproductive complications are also increased with obesity. Women who are obese during pregnancy have an increased risk for preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and cesarean deliveries. Obesity is also harmful for the infant, increasing the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida.
Yoder also discussed the psychosocial consequences of obesity, saying that studies have shown a correlation between high BMI and depression symptoms.
Gail Altieri, a senior Meteorology major, related to this part of the discussion. Altieri came to the lecture because she is, “Interested in obesity because I used to be 300 pounds in high school,” she began, “[My classmates] used to always make fun of the fat people; I got made fun of from elementary school to high school. They called me Gail the whale.”
Altieri now weighs a healthy 140 pounds, a weight that she was able to achieve in just a year by taking junk food out of her diet, avoiding sugary drinks, and exercising regularly.
Gail eats, “Three small meals a day, and [I] run an average of 3.0 to 3.5 miles a day except on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I do stomach crunches, but I do a lot of them though, like 300,” Altieri said. She also lifts weights, plays girls softball, coed softball, basketball, and soccer.
Her story can also be an example of how people are treated differently with weight loss. “It was funny, people treated me a lot better. The kid that used to make fun of me got fat and I got thinner, and asked me out.”
Eating right and maintaining an active lifestyle are the key ingredients to being healthy. However, the current trends in America are the primary causes of the rise in obesity. Yoder explained that almost 80 percent of children do not eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, and young people spend more time watching television than they spend on exercise or other physical activities. Jobs also are not as physical as they were in the past, “we have pushed physical activities out of our lives,” Yoder said.
Phuong Tien, a sophomore, believes that it is the parent’s responsibility to keep their children active, “Parents should make play time with the kid, even though they work. Five to ten minutes will add up, then you will build a better relationship.”
The eating habits of Americans have also drastically changed in the last 20 years, especially with the increase in fast food chains and larger meals. This can be seen especially in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods.
Fast food companies market towards poorer areas, which is why, “rates of obesity increase where there is a higher rate of poverty,” Yoder explained.
Yoder showed examples of how proportions have increased in the last two decades, comparing a cup of coffee that has 45 calories, to a mocha coffee that has 305 calories, and comparing an average cheeseburger, which has increased from 333 calories to 590 calories. “In our society, we have really decreased the amount of physical exercise and increased the amount of calories in our day,” Yoder said.
Yoder concluded her lecture with solutions to the obesity problem, stating that it is a systematic solution. In order to fight the epidemic, people must think about, “how we build our communities,” Yoder said.
The way communities are built are not physically friendly, Yoder explained, “we have really built our community around the automobile.”
She believes that people must, “Increase their everyday activities through the design of the built environment and transport system.”
People must also, “shift the drives of the food chain and consumer purchasing patterns to favor health options,” Yoder explained.
Schools play a big part in promoting healthy lifestyles for children.
“It always gets laid on the schools because students are there six hours a day,” Yoder said.
More schools are cutting recess at a younger age, and making gym optional instead of mandatory. Yoder believes that the schools need to make goals that focus on exercise and a balanced diet.
It is up to not only the individual, but also the entire public to help make these lifestyle changes, and fight the obesity epidemic.
The individual should have increased knowledge of the risks of obesity, the community should work together to promote change, and public policy should develop and enforce state and local policies that can increase healthy behaviors by developing media campaigns that promote awareness.
There is, “No single magic pill solution,” Yoder said.