Obesity: A Weighty Issue

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The obesity epidemic affects adults and kids across America. And those extra pounds that weigh us down as individuals are all adding up to a big health challenge for our country. Our Cover Story is reported now by Seth Doane:

Temptations are everywhere, and with so much "glorious food," odds are good that if you dare to step on the scale this morning you are not going to like what you see.

It's gotten so bad that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that one-third of American adults are overweight. Another third are obese.

It's an epidemic that's causing concern at the highest levels of government. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius calls the data "alarming."

"It has an impact at every step along the way, on costs and on quality of life, on a productive workforce," she told Doane. "We are really putting ourselves at a huge disadvantage in a global economy by having a nation that is vastly overweight."

"Really? Just for being too heavy?"

"You bet, you bet,' said Sebelius.

This is not the first time the federal government has sounded this alarm. Dr. David Satcher was one of the first to say there was an obesity epidemic in America, nearly a decade ago, when he was Surgeon General.

"We have addicted ourselves, and we are now addicting our children, to sedentary lifestyles, diets that are high in fats, salts and sweets," he said.

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"Obesity increases the risk of diabetes, dramatically. It increases the risk of heart disease, of stroke, of hypertension, increases the risk of many forms of cancer. And you think about the costs of health care and the role that chronic diseases play, obesity is a major factor in all of those chronic diseases I have just listed."

And those costs are staggering…

"About $147 billion a year are spent directly related to obesity and the underlying health conditions related to that," said Sebelius. "That compares with all the cancers that people have across America, which cost a little under $100 billion a year. So one-and-a-half times as much money is spent [on obesity]."

Obesity is determined by your body mass index, a rough calculation of body fat based on your height and weight:

18.5 - 24.9 is considered normal
25 - 29.9 is considered overweight
30 and above is obese

To determine your own body mass index visit WebMD's BMI Calculator.

So, if you're 5'10" (like Doane), and tip the scales at up to 173 pounds, your weight is considered normal. From 174 to 208 pounds, you're overweight. And 209 pounds upward qualifies as obese.

Adult obesity rates have doubled in the past thirty years. Why?

Some of the answers may be familiar.

Instead of sitting down for that home-cooked family meal, we'll grab something "on the go." Maybe we'll "super-size" it for good measure.

Whatever the reason, on average we're consuming 300 more calories a day than a quarter century ago.

And we're not burning them off. Today, we spend less time walking, more time driving, sitting in front of the computer or TV.

So, a question: Is it simply a matter of personal responsibility, or do food retailers play a role, too?

Subway, which touts a menu that includes some low-fat sandwiches, has even more U.S. locations than McDonald's.

"We're trying to respond to the need for better choices that people are demanding," said staff dietitian Lanette Kovachi.

In Subway's Milford, Conn., test kitchen, Kovachi regularly reviews calorie counts for new products.

"You talk a lot about offering healthier items, but there are some very unhealthy items on the menu, too; isn't that a contradiction?" asked Doane.

"I don't think so. You know, our whole thing is we want to offer choice," Kovachi replied.

But, how do you make healthy choices when they simply do not exist?

Lucinda Hudson and Holland Brown led a 12-year battle to bring a grocery store to this Philadelphia neighborhood.

"It was horrible, to say the least, about a community as big as this, to have no supermarket!" said Hudson.

Jeff Brown owns this Shop Rite franchise. He opened four locations in the inner city, thanks to grants and loans, all part of a Pennsylvania program designed to encourage healthier living.

Before the supermarket opened, the only options in the neighborhood, said Brown, were small bodegas. "And the bodegas did not have a lot of fresh food, and their prices were very expensive. So we have a situation that the poorest of us had to pay the most. And that's the part that just doesn't work."

Success here is tallied in the receipts. This store sells the same amount of fresh foods as its more affluent, suburban counterparts. And even if fresh costs more, Regina Brown says it's worth it:

"It's going to cost you one way or another," Regina Brown told Doane. "It's going to cost you health-wise - or it's going to cost you money-wise. Either way you pay. So I'd rather pay this way."

"Pay on the front end?" asked Doane.

"Pay on the front end, yeah," she said.

And those "back-end" health care costs may only get bigger.

"In children, obesity rates are about four times higher than they were, say, 40 years ago," said Dr. Walter Willett, who chairs the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"Part of the problem is we don't see the full impact of obesity until many decades later," he said. "So the children who are now growing up obese, 20 and 30 years down the road are going to have horrendous problems that we've really not seen before."

So, what can be done?

Dr. Willett and some colleagues advocate taxing sugary drinks (like soda) to help reduce consumption and raise funds to fight obesity.

And the first family is leading by example, with the most famous gardener in America, Michelle Obama.

In spring, planting a vegetable garden at the White House, and again last week, the first lady encouraged kids to get more physical activity.

Today, one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese.

With ballooning health care costs and crippling disease, Secretary Sebelius says we need to act . . . soon.

"I think to me one of the most sobering statistics is the fact that we have a generation of children alive today who may live shorter life spans than their parents - first time in 200 years," Sebelius said. "And the major cause for that is obesity."

For more info:
Healthy Weight (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Trust for America's Health

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