America’s War With Obesity

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America’s War With Obesity

Obesity in America is now epidemic. Here is what can be done about this national health crisis.
From the June 2001 Trumpet Print Edition

Watch most evening television commercials and it is not difficult to see that Americans are obsessed with food. Advertisers know what we want. With snappy music and fast-paced images we are offered bigger-size hamburgers, larger-size fries and taller-size sugared soft drinks. Competing food companies let us know which larger pizza tastes better. Often, before the night is through, we are left drooling over the thickest milkshake or multiple-topped sundaes.

It should not be surprising then to recognize that many Americans are overweight—seriously overweight.

In the 1950s John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, “More die in the United States of too much food than of too little” (The Affluent Society). This means that over five decades ago Americans were beginning to show signs of overweight problems.

Recent statistics show just how bad things have gotten. Even though 20 percent of the American population is on some kind of diet, over 50 percent of Americans are now considered to be overweight. Even worse, approximately 25 percent of Americans are suffering from life-threatening obesity. It is alarming to note that the age group with the highest increase in obesity is 18-to-29-year-olds.

Health professionals recognize that obesity is widespread in the United States. In 1999, Jeffrey P. Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc) stated, “Obesity is an epidemic and should be taken as seriously as any infectious disease epidemic.”

In 1998, the U.S. surgeon general’s report on nutrition and health stated clearly that obesity is a known risk factor for chronic disease that often leads to death. Many have not listened to such warnings. Obesity is one of the known causes of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and some forms of cancer. It is estimated that 300,000 premature deaths occur each year in the United States because of our overweight health condition. Health care costs directly related to obesity amount to approximately $100 billion dollars each year. It is estimated that another $33 billion is spent annually on weight-reduction programs and special diet foods.

All this simply means is that our love affair with food is not only costing us, it is killing us. And yet the pounds we carry are ever increasing. Only 10 percent of Americans who lose 25 pounds or more are able to keep the weight off beyond two years. Many discover that they often gain back double what they originally lost. Why are Americans losing their war against obesity?

Obesity Defined

Overweight Americans have difficulty admitting there is a problem. So, what is obesity? It is most simply defined as an excess of body fat. We need a certain amount of fat for energy, heat, insulation, shock absorption and other functions. However, when our body fat exceeds a certain percentage of our total body weight, then we are considered to be overweight. As a rule, women need more body fat than men. Most health professionals generally agree that men with more than 25 percent body fat and women with more than 30 percent body fat are obese.

Accurately measuring body fat is not simple. Health clubs often use skin calipers—scales that rely on a harmless electric shock sent through the body. The most common measurements used by medical doctors and insurance companies are the height-to-weight ratio tables. Even though these tables do not take into account individual body structures that could contain heavier bones or more muscle mass, they are a good indicator of a weight problem. The most accurate—and expensive—means to measure body fat is to weigh a person underwater. This procedure is often limited to laboratories with very sophisticated equipment. The easiest method of all is to measure your own waistline. More than 35 inches for women and more than 40 inches for men is considered a high-risk or obese waistline. Using any one of these methods can help us to truly evaluate our weight condition. And of course, we need to be honest with ourselves.

The Causes of Obesity

Why have Americans gotten so heavy? It is true that genetics and other medical conditions can play a role with some people being overweight. But a majority of Americans are overweight because we take in more calories than we use. These excess calories are stored as fat.

Compared with other peoples of the world, Americans are well known for having high-calorie diets and a sedentary lifestyle. Surveys show that our daily caloric intake has increased nearly 10 percent since the late ’70s. At the same time, our activity level has decreased. Why these changes in diet and activity level? If we truly want to solve our weight problems, we must honestly investigate the causes for obesity.

Putting genetics and medical problems aside, there are several other factors that contribute significantly to the American weight problem. The first factor: Americans have developed a fast-paced, time-crunched society. This demands a lifestyle of convenience. Many of our conveniences involve food. Because most households have both parents working, it has become far easier to either eat in restaurants or buy take-out. Most such food has higher calorie content, especially that of the popular fast food industry. The fast food industry has boomed since the late ’70s. So has America’s waistline. Very few people take the time to cook meals from scratch, which is generally much healthier. As a result, Americans are growing ever weaker physically.

Some food manufacturers actually know to do better. Motivated by greed and catering to our desire for convenience, marketing specialists have heavily promoted quick and easy microwaveable meals and snack foods. Take an objective look at your grocery store. The variety and types of easy meals and snack foods are endless. Americans love out-of-the-box meals and snack foods.

These highly processed packaged foods may save us time, but they also have a higher calorie content. It is always shocking to discover how many calories snacks and prepackaged foods contain.

Americans love to socialize. We look for any excuse to have friends over for a get-together. Very few Americans socialize without the presence of ample amounts of snack foods. Food and fun have been locked together in the American mind. Can you imagine a Super Bowl party without high-calorie snack foods?

A second contributing factor to American’s overweight problem is our preference for taste over nutritional substance. Americans will eat just about anything that tastes good—even if it is bad for our health. We shy away from eating fresh fruits and vegetables and lean cuts of meat because they do not taste good to us, preferring high-fat or heavily sugared foods like hot dogs, sausage, hamburgers, french fries, soft drinks, beer and desserts. These foods are easy to prepare and taste good but are wrecking our health.

One final cause for our overweight problem that we must consider involves the well-established fact that America simply does not exercise. Some would doubt that fact, considering the number of infomercials selling exercise equipment. But the truth is, a lot of that exercise equipment becomes expensive clothes racks.

The cdc lists physical inactivity as the major contributing factor to America’s obesity. Americans avoid opportunities to burn calories. We will drive our car before walking anywhere, even over short distances. We will choose the elevator over the stairs. Our children spend an average of 25 to 35 hours in front of the television each week. Many children would not even know how to play outdoors. American inactivity has had a devastating toll on our health.

We could list other causes for America’s problem with obesity. But if the majority of overweight Americans would take the time to tackle the problems discussed, we could produce a thinner America. We do not need to have a weight problem in this country.

Now, what is the way to a thinner, healthier you?

The Healthy Way

First of all let us say that it is a real challenge to lose weight. But restored health is worth the challenge. It is always advisable to seek the advice of a health professional before starting any weight loss program.

You should be wary of any program that offers quick weight loss. Generally, it takes months to put weight on—and it is only reasonable to expect that it should take months to take it off. America is plagued with many fad diets that often do more harm than good. Extreme deprivation diets that limit you to certain foods or just liquids do not promote good health. In fact, some of those diets can even kill.

Also beware of diet programs that promise to make you look like the models in the pictures used to advertise weight-loss products. Let’s be realistic. Very few of us have the time or the body structure to come to look like those models. Building a well-chiseled physique takes hours each day in a gym. Models admit that developing a magazine-cover body only comes with great pain. Most have to live a very unbalanced lifestyle to maintain that Greek-statue look.

Remember, it is health we should be after—not image. The over-emphasis on looks has led many people into the life-threatening behaviors of bulimia and anorexia.

Even though Americans are some of the best-educated people in this world, we need to educate ourselves better about good nutrition and exercise—the two major keys to healthy and effective weight loss. In other words, to lose weight and maintain health, we must eat healthier and increase our activities.

Experts have studied people who are successful at maintaining a healthy weight. These people restrict their food intake in some way, watch their portions, count calories and avoid fat. All persons studied said that they ate fast food less than once a week. Exercise was considered a staple in maintaining weight loss. It was discovered that women burned 2,000 calories each week while men burned 3,000. Walking was by far the most common exercise, followed by aerobics and competitive sports like basketball.

Developing a Plan

Nearly all of those successful at weight management had developed a plan for maintaining a healthy weight. The majority of people’s plans involved nutritional analysis, education, a health-conscious approach to food, and other lifestyle changes. In other words, to successfully lose weight, people have to make some changes in the way they live.

Many Americans have learned to eat food on cue or because of emotional upset, rather than for hunger. Understanding why you eat is as important as knowing what you eat.

The easiest way to do nutritional self-analysis is to keep a daily journal of what you eat. Make notes of the times you eat, what you eat, how much, when and why. Be honest and detailed. For example, if you eat potato chips as a snack, list the amount. Did you eat five chips, one quarter of a 12 ounce bag, or the whole bag? It is also important to note why you ate the chips. Ask yourself, were you upset? Were you visiting with a friend? Were you alone and watching television? When keeping a journal, do not be critical of yourself—just do it! Keeping a journal will reveal both positive and negative things about your eating habits.

After a week of journaling, go back through your notes and do some nutritional analysis. Are you eating natural whole-grain foods? Are you eating several portions of fresh fruits and vegetables? Are you eating lean meats and fish? Or are you eating mostly prepackaged foods? A lot of fried food? A lot of fast food? Become a label reader. Begin to look at the calorie content of the foods you are eating. On the average, 17 potato chips have about 160 calories. That is not so bad. Yet, a whole bag of chips contains 4,480 calories. Eating a whole bag of chips is not good, considering that the nutritional content of the chips is very low.

Also understand this: Experts discovered that the women who were successful at weight loss eat approximately 1300 calories each day; the men ate approximately 1725 calories each day. Eating a whole bag of chips would represent nearly three days of food for the women and two days for the men.

Education on Nutrition

Be sure to educate yourself on good nutrition. Most Americans have little understanding of it. Unfortunately this common ignorance is a matter of choice. There are numerous good and easy-to-understand books and pamphlets available about nutrition. A lot of nutrition educational materials are given free. We are really without excuse.

Did you know that the best diet that will produce a slimmer you is a balanced diet that includes at least five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain cereals and breads, lean proteins and dairy products?

The foods highest in nutritional content are often lowest in calories. The foods that are good for us also fill us up. For example, fresh fruits and vegetables are very low in calories and high in dietary fiber. When we eat the necessary portions of them we will automatically feel more full and satisfied. Unfortunately, many of us have lost our taste for such foods. But if we desire to manage our weight, we will retrain ourselves to enjoy the foods that are good for us. We must become more health conscious in our eating.

Did you know that it actually takes a lot of fat to make us feel satisfied? Notice how difficult it is to eat just a few high-fat chips or fries!

Once you get a better understanding of good nutrition, develop a food plan for yourself. Seek the help of a professional nutritionist if you cannot decide what is best for you. Most effective weight loss plans recommend three small meals and two snacks each day. That actually is a lot of food if it is high in nutritional content.

In addition, all healthy diets must include ample amounts of clean water. Most diet plans recommend a minimum of eight 8-ounce glasses a day (not including other beverages). The right amount of water promotes healthy liver and kidney function, which helps our body eliminate fats. Medical professionals recognize that most Americans are chronically dehydrated. Thirst often masks itself as hunger.

When planning your meals, remember to cut back on your portions. If you choose fast foods that are “bigger,” remember—you’ll become bigger too! Avoid high-fat and fast foods. Those most successful at sustained weight loss made simple changes in their eating habits. Do you realize how many calories you can save by eliminating second helpings? By having desserts only once per week? By being conscious of how much snack food you eat? Even limiting alcoholic drinks to one or two times a week can save thousands of calories per year.

It is a known fact that deprivation diets do not work. We all need to enjoy our food—even snack food on occasion. But we should eat all foods in moderation. Even the Bible teaches, “Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it” (Prov. 25:16). Too much of a good thing can make us sick. Practice self-discipline in your eating.

Exercise Is Vital

Americans always seem to want to do things the quick and easy way. How often have you heard ads that say, “Take this pill—no need to exercise!” The truth is, it is the diet plans and exercise programs that bring true success—not the pills. Let’s be honest. Most Americans have chosen a sedentary lifestyle. Busy with our jobs and family, we simply don’t allow time for exercise.

A moderate but consistent exercise program will speed your weight loss success and help you manage your weight. Starting an exercise program does not need to be expensive or painful. The three most important investments you can make will be in a good pair of walking shoes, some comfortable clothing, and your time. A 30-minute walk at a good pace five days a week will help shed pounds; a 30-minute walk three days a week will help you maintain your weight. Moderate weightlifting is also valuable to help build more muscle mass and strong bones. To lose weight and maintain a healthy weight, we need to be physically active. You can even do some beneficial exercise while watching television.

But before starting any exercise program, seek some medical advice. Devise a plan that is best for you. Just get yourself moving again.

Many Americans are losing the war with obesity. But we can win. Let’s all take the steps necessary to regain our health. When we do we will see a happier, thinner America.