This story has been updated for a correction.
The lazy hazy days of August are in full force here in Michigan, filled with trips to the lake, drives Up North and the consumption of burgers, beer and all things high in calories.
Unfortunately, obesity continues its hold on Americans: 35 percent of men and 40.4 percent of women nationally are obese. In Michigan, the news is a bit less grim, but still troubling, with the latest government data showing that our obesity rate is 30.7 percent, the 17th highest in the nation.
Now, some of you might be saying, “So what, Dr. Rosick; being a little overweight is just fine and besides, that just means people in the U.S. are eating better than ever!” I’d have to politely disagree on that statement. Numerous studies tlink obesity with a number of life-threatening diseases.
While the report in JAMA is filled with enough data and statistics to make a physician trained in preventive medicine and public health like myself quite happy, the report’s discussion section left me scratching my head, with the authors stating, ”Data are lacking to show the causes of these [obesity] trends ... .” There are some significant factors driving the current 21st century obesity epidemic that should be quite clear to anyone — or at least to anyone who isn’t wearing political or medical blinders.
First off is our sedentary lifestyle, both at work and play. Just a few generations ago, a significant portion of the adult population worked either in agriculture or at some type of physical labor. Today, more and more of us fill our eight- (or 10- or 12-) hour workday sitting behind computer screens. As for play, not many of us sat in front of our 12 -inch black and white TV screens for hours watching three channels; today, the 72-inch HDTV with hundreds of channels as well as doubling as a screen for our XBoxes and Playstation's keep many of us, especially the young, almost permanently glued to the couch.
Next is our selection of food. Cheap food. Unhealthy cheap food that is fast, convenient and filled with a witch’s brew of chemicals, sugar and salt and has, for all practical purposes, no nutritional value whatsoever, yet eaten by many daily. Humans are evolutionarily drawn to foods high in sugar and salt, and that basic biological fact hasn’t been lost on multinational food corporations that pour billions of dollars a year into advertising those products. This is added to the fact that the government spends tens of billions of our hard-earned tax dollars a year to subsidize farmers to grow corn — or sugar on the cob — which is then fed to our livestock or made into high fructose corn syrup that’s in a significant portion of processed foods.
The mainstream medical profession isn’t blameless either. For decades, all carbs were touted as good and fats as bad; unfortunately, from a scientific point of view, that’s wrong. Humans need both saturated and unsaturated fat for optimal health. Of course, too much fat can be a problem, at least in terms of calories, but giving people the idea that replacing fats with carbs from grains such as corn and wheat has definitely poured fuel onto the obesity fire. Finally, add in other possible villains such as endocrine-disrupting chemicals now unfortunately ubiquitous in our environment, chemicals that play havoc with our hormones that help regulate weight, and voila! — you have the perfect storm for an obesity epidemic.
So what can we do?
For one, we can make our voices heard. Writing and calling your congressional delegates about things like farm subsidy bills CAN make a difference: If there’s one thing politicians both fear and respond to, it’s an active, engaged public.
Individually, take the time to learn what foods are the most healthy and read food labels before you buy, then make the choice to eat as healthy as your paycheck allows you to. And then, put down your TV remote control and get outside to move and exercise, which can be anything from playing a game of pick-up basketball to taking a nice long walk. It’s still summer in Michigan, so take advantage of our long days of sunshine, not-freezing weather and endless outdoor activities in order to avoid becoming another statistic in a medical journal.
(Dr. Edward Rosick, who is an osteopath and head of the Healthy Campus Initiative at Michigan State University, is the author of “ Optimal Prevention.”)
(Because of an editing error, an earlier versio of this story misidentified Rosick.)