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The national obesity epidemic shows no signs of slowing down

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

Despite vigorous campaigns to the contrary, Americans are becoming more obese. The sad and alarming statistics have come out of the Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan advocacy group, and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, and speak volumes to the issue of the adult and childhood obesity epidemic in this country.

For starters, not one state has reported a decrease in obesity. In fact, adult obesity rates have increased in 16 states in the past year.

Two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children and teens are obese or overweight. This puts them at increased risk for more than 20 chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. And obesity-related medical costs and a less productive workforce hamper us as a nation in t eh global economy.

"Obesity is one of the most challenging health crises this country has ever faced," said Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health. "Twenty years ago, no state had an obesity rate higher than 15 percent. Now, only Colorado is below 20 percent."

Colorado, which today is the state with the lowest obesity rate, would have had the highest in 1995. Mississippi tops the nation's list as the largest state, where 34 percent of the population is obese. Generally, Southern states tend to be most obese.

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Diabetes rates have risen along with America's waistline. In 1995, four states had diabetes rates over 6 percent. Now, 43 states have diabetes rates over 7 percent. Across the country, hypertension rates have risen to more than 20 percent of the total population.

The report is based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where people self-reported their height and weight. Experts said people tend to underreport their weight, so rates are likely even higher than the data listed in the report.

In the 1970s, only 5 percent of American children were obese. Today, that percentage has tripled, and even quadrupled in some regions, foreshadowing an ominous future problem unprecedented in scale as today’s children grow up already hampered by diseases which, in the past, set in only at middle age.

The report is an impressive and thorough contribution to the study of the problem of obesity in the U.S. It addresses a wide range of topics and factors not commonly discussed in the debate, such as livable, healthy environments and a call for federal and state policies and reform.

The fact that an increasing percentage of the population live in “food deserts” with no supermarkets, no playgrounds and no sidewalks is a vastly underrated factor in the problem of American obesity. The food deserts are not necessarily limited to urban, poverty-stricken ghettos, though they are certainly acutely affected. Food deserts are not devoid of food per se – they are devoid of fresh, healthy food. Food deserts, in fact, can sport a fast food joint on every block and are thus characteristic also of a majority of suburbs, and, most especially, the new phenomenon of “exurbs” – extreme suburbia, characterized by sprawling subdivisions on the outskirts of suburbia. They are frequently accessible only by car, and their main route of access – typically a freeway or state highway – is dotted by food desert outlets.

Honestly, what is the child or adult commuting to “the bedroom” in the evening to do about this enforced immobility? The problem is deeply endemic within the very nature of our country’s urban planning – or unplanning, as it may be. Combined with a constant assault by advertising, and long stretches of “nothing to do” on the typical teenager’s weekend, is it really any wonder we are growing ever more rotund?