Too many calories in and too few out

Posted: May 30, 2002 12:00 AM
From one who devours well-marbled meats and can scarf down a large load of fries or a giant bag of kettle-fried chips at light-speed, this is a bit of eat-your-vegetables messianism. What follows, some of which you anecdotally may know, will be good for you. So please sit down.... Among the many epidemics we are in the midst of (ignorance, agnosticism, illegitimacy, incivility and AIDS), obesity is huge. Americans are fatter than ever. Digest this pamphlet of data and quotes: - Fifty-five percent of American women and 63 percent of American men are overweight or obese. That adult rate has soared in just the past decade. If we continue on this path for another decade, the costs in disease and health care will be staggering. - The prevalence of obesity is soaring in both genders and in all races, creeds, and age groups. A recent study showed obesity rising in every state surveyed. In the past two decades, the numbers of overweight have doubled among children and tripled among teen-agers. Overall, 57 percent of Americans are overweight or obese - up from 45 percent in 1991. - Not even the military can keep up. Now 60 percent of all military personnel are overweight. Each year the armed forces dismiss about 5,000 service members because they cannot maintain their weight within military standards. - Every year 300,000 Americans die as a consequence of too much weight - making excessive weight (next to 430,000 annual tobacco-related afflictions) the nation's second-largest cause of preventable death. That 300,000 number (1,200 per day) is 100 times the number lost in the World Trade Center. It also is greater than the combined number killed annually by pneumonia, car accidents and airline crashes. - Health-care costs related to obesity and excessive weight total an estimated $117 billion annually. - Diabetes is largely about weight. A decade ago, Americans were being diagnosed with diabetes at the rate of 9 million per year; now the number is 15 million - that's 15 MILLION. The federal government now recommends "pre-diabetes" tests for anyone over 44 with any of several key risk factors. Noting the worldwide rise in obesity, Nature magazine terms the diabetes epidemic "one of the main threats to human health in the 21st century." - Nor are the consequences limited to diabetes. Fat also contributes heavily to hypertension, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, cancer and a list of other diseases so long it will make you sick.... This is huge. Do we know that as a nation we are growing sloppy fat? We know. How did it happen? Genes, maybe - in certain cases. Some people do have genetic defects in their internal weight-regulating systems. And just the other day came news about ghrelin, a hormone that apparently compounds the difficulties dieters have in keeping off the weight they lose. But the major reasons: habit, environment and insufficient willpower. In other words.... Too many calories in and too few out. "All you can eat." Too much fatty food, sugary food, salty food. Too much fast-food. Too much vending-machine food. For the young, too much whole milk - in addition to gargantuan meals - beyond the early years when they really need it. Too-busy parents too busy to prepare balanced meals, and instead throwing prepared foods at the kids just to get them fed - parents doing to their children what they are doing to themselves. And: Going practically everywhere by conveyance. TV, computers and video games. One study concluded that every additional weekly hour before a TV monitor increases the risk for obesity by 2 percent. The demise of recess, physical education classes and gym: Another study found that only one-fifth of today's adolescents are taking one or more gym classes per week. Activity-eliminating devices - from garage-door openers to electric knives and forks. For all the talk about fitness, exercise and eating right, there's a fat epidemic out there. The world is becoming one vast fat city. But it's worst right here in the good ol' U.S. of A. What to do? Recognition of the problem and its magnitude is the first step. Then change our habits. Yet, regarding behavior modification, Washington nutritionist Lynn Fischer, the author of six books on fat-free cooking, says, "We will change our hair, our clothes and our religion before we will change the way we eat" - until the heart attack or something. "All you can eat" can kill as surely as a car driven by a drunk. And in a free society the government - sponsor or author or purveyor of much of the data on obesity - cannot compel any changes. Anti-obesity drugs are relatively ineffective, but better ones evidently are on the way. They could prove big-time helps. Yet the keys are to take charge of one's health by eating less and eating balanced. By avoiding fast-foods, prepared foods, vending machine foods, etc. By pushing away from the table sooner. By drinking more water. By vigorously exercising more (at least half an hour a day). By locating the nearest stairs. For this huge problem, not anything complex, but simple stuff like that. Oh, and by turning off the tube.