Obesity remains a problem in United States

Researchers stressed the importance of people making behavioral changes.

by Yelena Kibasova

The latest national statistics indicate obesity continues to be a problem.

According to information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 32 percent of American adults are overweight and about 5 percent of adults were considered extremely obese in 2003-2004. Of children and adolescents, more than 17 percent are overweight.

Robert Jeffery, a professor of epidemiology at the University, said the problem is widespread.

“You can see it in ages as low as 2 and as high as 90,” he said. “It’s happening to everybody.”

On the positive side, there was no increase in obesity among women. In 1999, 33.4 percent of women were obese, and in 2004, it stayed stable at 33.2 percent.

“Women are more responsive to most kinds of health information than men,” Jeffery said. “Maybe something is happening but there’s not too much to cheer about certainly at this point.”

Jeffery said the message about the importance of a healthful lifestyle still is not getting out to the public.

“The government and the nutritional community haven’t gotten their act together very well yet in terms of a good message,” he said.

He said there is little information telling people they should eat less.

Meanwhile, most people don’t think they have a weight problem, even if they obviously do, he said.

“There is a curious phobia of scales,” he said. “If you look at the data, people who weigh themselves regularly weigh less than people who don’t.”

Benjamin Senauer, professor of applied economics and co-director of the University’s Food Industry Center, said statistics showing an increase in obesity can’t be blamed on genetics.

“There’s something different about our environment,” Senauer said. “Our willpower has not changed.”

The current obesity trend is not limited to the United States, Jeffery said.

“People have become aware that this is not limited to the U.S.,” he said. “It’s happening virtually universally.”

More calories in Ö

Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor in the division of epidemiology and community health in the School of Public Health, said the answer to a healthy body weight is the same “boring” answer it always has been: proper nutrition.

“What is really needed within our society is to make long-term behavioral changes,” she said.

Neumark-Sztainer said people continue to look for a quick fix. Her research shows that teenagers continue to diet to lose weight but end up gaining weight instead.

Neumark-Sztainer referred to America’s environment as obesogenic – an environment that supports weight gain.

“It is very hard not to become fat because of where we live,” she said, “so I think that making the behavioral changes is very difficult within our environment.”

Neumark-Sztainer said people need to continue watching what they eat but also concentrate on how much they eat.

The National Institutes of Health provides a “Portion Distortion” quiz on its Web site, nih.gov. According to the quiz, 20 years ago a bottle of pop was 6.5 ounces and contained 85 calories. Today’s 20-ounce pop contains 260 calories.

“When Europeans come here, they’re just astounded by the portion sizes,” Senauer said. “People have lost a sense of what a serving size is.”

He said trends such as an increase in the number of working parents and increased time pressures have led to less cooking at home.

“There is more and more reliance on prepared meals where convenience is a primary attribute,” Senauer said.

There also has been a shift in the types of foods we eat, Jeffery said.

“The changes have been away from fat and toward sugar,” he said. “We have a healthier diet in the sense of heart disease prevention, but we’re eating more calories.”

Jeffery said sugar could be the “smoking gun,” but there still are many factors that contribute to obesity.

“I don’t think anyone has put their finger on the devil,” he said.

Fewer calories out

The other side of the problem, Senauer said, is people increasingly are becoming sedentary.

“The level of physical activity of Americans and worldwide has gone down,” he said.

Senauer said today’s jobs require more sitting, such as behind a desk, than ever.

He said that in the past “most people got paid to exercise.”

Workers such as lumberjacks had to eat 6,000 to 7,000 calories a day to balance their expended calories, he said.

“A lot of the concern back then was getting enough calories,” he said.

Another concern is America’s dependency on automobiles, Senauer said.

“Our cities are all designed around automobiles,” he said. “The Twin Cities is really poorly served by public transportation.”

Senauer said employers can help by providing support for healthful behavior. He suggested offering workers an hour for lunch and encouraging them to use part of it for exercise.

“We (need to) make access to exercise much easier for people and provide them the time to do it,” he said.

A short, tough answer

Although getting to a healthy weight can be a challenge, Neumark-Sztainer said, “Sometimes we have to make taking care of ourselves a priority over other things.”

She said people need to have a realistic assessment of how difficult it is to make long-term behavioral changes and then take small steps toward their goals.

Senauer said the simple but often difficult answer continues to be the oft-quoted motto “less calories in and more calories out.”