Experts to discuss obesity issue

Being overweight can pose health risks that students are often unaware of.

Mike Enright

With more Americans tipping the scales than ever before, a pair of scholars is talking about the country’s so-called obesity epidemic at the University.

where to go

Great Conversations
What: Speakers Dr. Kessler and Dr. Levine will discuss the obesity epidemic.
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Where: Ted Mann Concert Hall

Tonight, the Great Conversations 2007 lecture series begins with a discussion of the country’s growing obesity problem, featuring Dr. Allen Levine, recently named dean of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences and Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and nationally recognized health advocate.

Calling obesity a “societal problem,” Levine said his perspective on the issue comes from almost 30 years of research trying to understand the relationship between the brain and eating.

“What is it about any particular food that makes it so rewarding that we will go out of our way to get it?” he said. “Or at the end of a meal, like Thanksgiving, when you’re completely stuffed and can’t eat anything else, but you’re willing to have that piece of pie.”

Levine said our nation’s shared portliness is a widespread problem that cannot be blamed solely on one source.

“Who are the responsible parties to this?” he asked. “Probably, we’re all responsible on some level.”

In 2004, roughly 34 percent of American adults were overweight, 32 percent were obese and 33 percent maintained a healthy weight, according to statistics provided by the Weight-control Information Network, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The same statistics also show that over the past several decades more Americans have become either overweight or obese, regardless of age, race or gender.

In 1960, nearly 45 percent of American adults were considered overweight, but by 2002 that number had ballooned to 65 percent.

Eating a tomato-less sub sandwich during the noon hour Monday, biology senior Mark Spaude said he thinks Americans by and large have a growing problem.

Spaude said he’s gained about 10 pounds in his four years of college, but he has had friends fall victim to the infamous “freshman 15.”

A self-described fan of McDonald’s dollar menu, he said the convenience of fast food can be tempting, but ultimately people need to take responsibility for managing their own weight.

“If you have self-control, you shouldn’t have a problem not being obese,” Spaude said. “As far as obesity being a disease, I don’t really believe that.”

He also said he doesn’t think most college students are worried about being overweight.

And while many aren’t overly concerned, University epidemiology professor Melissa Nelson, whose research focuses on weight gain in younger populations, said they should be.

“The prevalence of (being) overweight and obesity almost doubles between adolescence and young adulthood,” she said.

Nationally, about half of 19- to 26-year-olds are either overweight or obese, Nelson said, compared with about a quarter of adolescents.

Part of this jump might be connected to some of Nelson’s research published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, which shows that teenagers generally become less active as they age.

The researchers also found that between 1999 and 2004, teens’ sedentary behaviors – such as watching TV or using a computer – increased 25 to 50 percent.

Most unsettling, those kinds of trends continue as people get older, Nelson said.

“For students, my best advice is to be aware of what you’re eating,” she said. “I talk to so many students who say, ‘Mindless eating just gets me.’ “

Like Nelson, Levine emphasized that students are not immune to the threat of obesity.

“When you’re young, you think you’re immortal,” he said. “(Students’) health is at risk just like all of ours.”

Young people can also suffer from the many health problems caused by obesity.

“You would never think as a teenager or as a college student that you might have diabetes,” he said. “But now with obesity contributing, kids are getting diabetic.”

Lecture tickets are $23.50 for University students, faculty and staff. This year, students also have the opportunity to attend for $10 by joining a rush line, which will open an hour before the lecture starts, said program organizer Margy Ligon, director of Personal Enrichment Programs in the College of Continuing Education.