Battling Obesity in America

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In its "Where America Stands" series, CBS News is looking at a broad spectrum of issues facing this country in the new decade.

The evidence of an epidemic is everywhere.

  • Two-thirds, more than 190 million Americans are overweight or obese.
  • Obesity-related diseases are a $147 billion dollar medical burden every year.
  • Childhood obesity has tripled in the last thirty years.

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    As CBS News correspondent Seth Doane reports, this could be the first generation since the Civil War to have a shortened life expectancy.

    The Problem

    To gauge the problem, a team of doctors and cardiologists from Houston's Memorial Hermann Hospitalset up a MASH unit of sorts in a middle school gym, where they run a battery of tests on 97 seemingly healthy children.

    But the results reveal an alarming reality here: three out of every four children are either overweight or obese.

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    That means about seventy of the children are on a high-risk trajectory for coronary artery disease by their 30's and 40's.

    Doctor Joshua Samuels treats kids with blood pressure levels of an unhealthy adult. Back at his clinic, 11-year-old Wesley Randall has dangerously high blood pressure, and is 60 pounds overweight.

    "I just eat," Wesley said, "to solve my problems."

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    "A few years down the road these are the people who are going to be flooding into our hospitals and emergency rooms," said Dr. Samuels.

    Fifteen-year-old Emily Allen is trying to avoid just that. "What I look like now, she said, "it upsets me."

    The Hudson, Michigan teen was healthy at age five. But by age ten, she could no longer fit into kids clothing. She became obese.

    "I just feel guilty," she said, "that I couldn't change earlier."

    On doctor's orders, Emily joined a weight loss program called "m-power" at the University of Michigan. She's already lost 26 pounds, thanks, in part, to support from other teens.

    Other teens, like Amber Bell, who is in an even scarier life or death struggle. She's shed 50 pounds, but still weighs nearly 400 lbs.

    "What made you say, 'I'm going to make a change here,'" Doane asked.

    "I didn't want my parents to feel like I was a failure and I wanted to have friends," Amber replied.

    For Amber, Emily, and so many families - the battle started with money. Emily said she started gaining weight when her family started buying cheaper foods.

    Kelly Brownell studies obesity at Yale University, and says the government doesn't help by subsidizing corn - an ingredient in virtually every sweetener. Corn farmers were paid $56 billion dollars over the last ten years by the federal government to grow their crop.


    Produce farmers? Not a dime.

    "If you go to McDonald's today, you can buy a quarter-pounder with cheese meal that means the large drink and the large french fries - for less than it costs to buy a salad and a bottle of water," Brownell said. "There's something wrong with that picture."

    More Obesity Links
    The Obesity Society
    Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity
    Calorie Burner Chart
    CDC: Food groups and diet
    CDC: Body Mass Assessment

    The Norman Rockwell picture of 1950's America has certainly changed. Today, we consume more than 500 more calories a day - than a quarter century ago.

    It's easy to see why in a place like Baldwin Park, California, population 81,000.

    With six fast food restaurants or convenience stores for every one place that sells fresh produce - this community might seem to be at the root of the problem. But, in fact, it's at the forefront of a grassroots solution. Here, they're trying to innovate.

    Connie Gonzalez and her mother Maria volunteer with the program "Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities."

    The group pushed for a ban on new drive-thru windows. Since 2006, not a single fast-food restaurant has opened. Fresh produce is now stocked in stores that never carried it.

    Connie helped convince the school board to make salad bars a staple, and 100-minutes of weekly physical-education is mandatory. With all this, in five years - 135 kids here are no longer overweight.

    "All of us are working together to better our city," Maria said.

    "Why does it take a whole community," Doane asked.

    "One individual can't really change much," Maria replied. "But if a city comes together - we can change a whole lot."


    But that's not enough, said Kelly Brownell. He likens the war on obesity to the one against tobacco.

    "The parallels are stunning," he said. "Marketing to children, distorting the science, influencing policy makers and the like."

    The consumer is bombarded by the food industry which:

  • spent $30 billion dollars on advertising last year
  • makes eye-catching claims that products are "healthy" - when they are anything but

    And even the world's largest nutrition group -- The American Dietetic Association" -- has a list of sponsors that includes the very companies selling unhealthy products.

    "The single best thing to ever happen to fight tobacco were high taxes on cigarettes," Brownell said.

    Those taxes that increased the cost for a pack of cigarettes led to a drastic drop in smoking.

    Brownell's studies show a penny per ounce tax on sugared beverages - like soda - would cut consumption and raise billions that could fight obesity.

    "Isn't it our own responsibility to moderate our behavior," Doane asked.

    "The personal responsibility approach is a fine place to start," Brownell said. "But we've been doing that for forty years now and we're losing the battle with obesity -- that's been an experiment that has failed."

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