I have often written about obesity. As I report on unfolding news of the struggle to solve this ongoing health crisis, I try to balance this coverage out with other health issues, news and concerns. After all, it seemed we are on the right path in addressing some of the root problems of the obesity epidemic. Sales of fast food and sugary drinks are declining. In 2016, for the first time, Americans were consuming more bottled water than soda. Industry is finally scaling back on junk food ads to children, as well as ratcheting back on the sugar levels of products peddled to kids. Children’s school lunches are healthier than ever, we are told.
Then comes this wakeup call – according to research findings recently released by the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly 40 percent of adults and 19 percent of young people in this country are currently obese. This represents the highest rate the country has ever seen and there appears to be no indication that this spiking statistic will be slowing down any time soon.
According to the new study, there has been a 30 percent increase in adult obesity and 33 percent increase in youth obesity between data from 1999-2000 to 2015-16. When you measure this against a 2010 government-focused efforts to improve the health of Americans and reduce obesity (a program known as “Healthy People 2020”), the results add up to a depressing failure.
“I have no expectation at all for Healthy People 2020 to be achieved,” Michael W. Long of the Milken Institute of School Public Health at George Washington University admits to CNN.
The report does point out that youth obesity rates appear to be more stable in recent years. At the same time, the report cautions that it is “too early to tell” what direction youth obesity prevalence will take moving forward. Form a global standpoint, youth obesity numbers have plateaued recently in high-income countries, yet obesity levels in children and teenagers have risen dramatically worldwide. The number of obese children and adolescents worldwide is more than 10 times higher than it was 40 years ago.
Meanwhile, the bad news about obesity seems to be coming in bunches. According to a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month, findings reveal being overweight or obese increases a person’s risk for at least 13 types of cancer. The cancers, which include those of the brain, esophagus, thyroid, gallbladder, stomach, pancreas, kidney, uterus and colon, make up 40 percent of all diagnosed cancers in the U.S. In 2014, more than 630,000 of these types of cases of cancer were associated with being overweight or obese. These cases amounted to more than 55 percent of all cancers diagnosed among women and 24 percent of all cancers diagnosed among men in the U.S. The researchers also found that weight-related cancers were increasingly being diagnosed among younger people.
If we do not get this problem in check, the health complications of obesity in America will soon eclipse the numerous benefits achieved from declines in smoking.
Not unlike smoking, many folks see obesity as entirely an issue of personal responsibility. Yet as a special report in Harvard Magazine recently pointed out, while the reasons for skyrocketing obesity were largely elusive 30 years ago, they are now obvious to even the casual observer. A modern-food era driven by flavor-enhanced, additive-laced, convenient, and relatively affordable foods high in added sugar, unhealthy fats and salt has rapidly accelerated obesity in this country and now around the world.
Add to it scientifically engineered “bliss points” designed to mess with and overcome internal restraint and eating equilibrium, and we become programmed to overindulge. As pointed out by nutritionist and food industry critic Marion Nestle in her book “Food Politics,” a convergence of business and marketing is also “[encouraging] us to eat more food, more often, in more places.”
The other sad truth is that, in the U.S., only 1 in 6 adults who have dropped excess pounds are able to keep off at least 10 percent of their original body weight. When you dramatically reduce food intake, biology kicks in. We are evolutionarily programmed to put on fat to ride out what the body reads as famine. People who have slimmed down and then regain their weight don’t lack willpower; their bodies are fighting them every step of the way. By the time weight piles up in adulthood, for many it becomes seemingly impossible to reverse the pattern. Yet we apparently have a long way to go in understanding this dynamic. A 2015 paper in the American Journal of Public Health found that 72 to 98 percent of obesity-related media reports emphasize personal responsibility for weight, compared with 40 percent of scientific papers.
The reality is that an epidemic driven by powerful influences from industry, to federal policies (or the lack thereof) and social norms, has made it virtually impossible to reverse habits destructive to our health. Given this troubling reality, the best we seem able to hope for is to somehow slow the growth of the problem.
I will have more on this next week.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.