Who’s to Blame for Rising Obesity Rates in the US?

July 06, 2009 05:30 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Annual obesity rankings show a troubling rise in the epidemic. But some experts question the accuracy of the measurements, and others say addictive foods, not people, are to blame.

Unraveling Obesity in America

According to a report released by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 23 states have witnessed a rise in adult obesity rates, and rates didn't drop significantly in any state.

But some experts say Body Mass Index (BMI), which is used to measure obesity, may not always be accurate. Blaming the obese might also be unfair, as other experts point the finger at manufacturers that use high concentrations of fat, sugar and salt to make their foods addictive.

The obesity rankings allowed "one of the first in-depth looks at obese boomers," revealing statistics that could present health care providers and the federal government with great challenges, according to Associated Press medical writer Lauran Neergaard.

The percentage of obese patients receiving Medicare is expected to jump across the county, "from 5.2 percent in New York to a high of 16.3 percent in Alabama," according to the report. Annual Medicare costs for obese seniors are $1,400 to $6,000 higher than for non-obese seniors, according to Jeff Levi, the executive director of the Trust.
But might the report be flawed? According to NPR's Keith Devlin, the BMI scale is not an accurate indicator of obesity. Aside from the fact that the scale "ignores waist size, which is a clear indicator of obesity level," BMI is outdated and "makes no allowance for the relative proportions of bone, muscle and fat in the body." Devlin says there are "more scientifically sound methods" used to measure obesity levels, but they are more expensive.

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Background: Is overeating the real problem?

Meanwhile, David Kessler, the former dean of medical programs at Yale and the University of California, San Francisco, and former head of the Food and Drug Administration, makes the case that "conditioned hypereating" is a major contributing factor to the obesity epidemic in America.

In his book "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite," Kessler compares food addiction to nicotine, attempting to shift the blame in part from obese Americans to food manufacturers. Our food is "layered and loaded with fat, sugar and salt," Kessler tells Katharine Mieszkowski of Salon magazine. "You get stimulated, it disappears instantly and you reach for more." 

Combating that stimulation on a consistent basis is the responsibility of everyone involved, Kessler suggests, including "the government, food industry and individual diner."

According to Reuters, a study released in May suggested that "increased food intake, not reduced physical activity" is the main cause of obesity in the U.S. Although a combination of more exercise with lower calorie consumption is necessary to reduce obesity rates, professor Boyd A. Swinburn, the study leader, indicated, "the focus would have to be on reducing calorie intake."

Related Topic: The U.K. approach to obesity

Despite a 2007 scientific report in the U.K. that said the "wide variety and appeal of modern foods, with their increased palatability and ability to heighten sensory stimulation, drive us to reward ourselves with more food," Prime Minister Gordon Brown sees things differently.

According to The Times of London, when Brown announced a strategy in 2008 called Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives, he said weight control should be "the responsibility of individuals first—it is not the role of government to tell people how to live their lives."

But some experts think Brown's attitude is unhelpful. Tim Lang, a government advisor and City University food policy professor, told the Times that "politicians obsession with promoting 'choice' was damaging public health."

"If I walk to my local park for some exercise, I pass more than 30 food outlets before I get there" Lang said. "It's that combination of availability, advertising and seductive taste that makes modern food so addictive."

Reference: Obesity Web Guide

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to Obesity has information on preventing and managing obesity, and links to obesity news and research.

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