Not a week goes by without medical journals and national press being full of new information about obesity. While the war against weight gain has been mounting for several years, recent leadership from first lady Michelle Obama and the White House aims to push the cause further.
As a mother of two, Obama has experienced the personal struggle against weight gain and poor health habits. Several years ago, the Obamas’ pediatrician warned that their children were gaining too much weight - it was a wake-up call for the family. This simple dialogue with a caring physician set the family on a new course to health. With small, simple lifestyle changes, the Obamas saw big results. This personal commitment to end childhood obesity represents perhaps the greatest hope for turning the tide against poor health.
Obama hopes to use her new public awareness and education campaign to inspire Americans to make the same simple changes she made. Beyond mere inspiration, this campaign will provide a platform for lawmakers to make changes in childhood nutrition legislation that promote healthful eating habits.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 30 percent of U.S. adults (90 million) and 16 percent of U.S. children are obese. The many well-known health effects of obesity - includingraising blood pressure, altering metabolism that leads to diabetes and elevating cholesterol - have led to a higher risk of virtually every common disease affecting us. Being overweight is a strong risk factor for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. The wide-ranging impact of obesity can be seen in hospitals and clinics throughout the medical community.
While the negative impact of being obese is linked with illness and a shorter life span, the impact of being overweight is less clear. A series of studies just published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society clearly shows that for adults beyond the age of 70, being overweight is accompanied by a longer life expectancy. Studies from Australia and Canada have shown that overweight individuals over the age of 70 live from 13 percent to 17 percent longerthan those whose weight was ideal. It seems that the natural and modest increase in girth that accompanies advancing age has some physiological benefit. Furthermore, weight loss in older adults, either voluntary or due to an illness, is associated with a worse prognosis.
Though the “fit and fat” mantra has been encouraging to chubby Americans everywhere, new research paints a less cheery picture. The data indicate that any unnecessary weight gain is an independent risk factor for heart disease and cancer. Overweight individuals are far more likely to be sedentary, which in turn leads to deconditioning, impaired gait and balance, osteoporosis and risks of falling.
A study in the same journal showed that overweight women who were sedentary were twice as likely to die as those who exercised moderately. For some unknown reasons the benefits of exercise appeared less for men. Here exercise only reduced the risk of dying by 28 percent.
When overweight adults reach the age of 80, the risk of being physically dependent is much greater than for those who are at a lower weight. In other words, maintaining an ideal weight is the best course for health promotion and lifelong independence, even if you do not have high blood pressure, diabetes or elevated cholesterol.
Encouragingly, the CDC has recently announced that the prevalence of obesity is leveling off at 30 percent of adults, with a further third being overweight. Though the lack of increase in obesity is considered a breakthrough, the cause for concern remains high.
Yes, obesity is epidemic. And it threatens the health of generations of Americans. Butthis is not an insurmountable problem. What you eat affects the risk of illness and death even more than how much you weigh. Research published in American Journal of Epidemiology has shown that a diet rich in olive oil, fish, fruits and vegetables and low in starches is associated with a longer life expectancy, lower cholesterol and decreased blood pressure.
With simple, straightforward lifestyle habits, any American can turn the tide against obesity. Switch vegetable oil for olive oil, swap sodas for water, and encourage every member of the family to get active - we should all follow the Obamas’ lead.