Rising obesity levels incite health concerns

Craig Gustafson

A new study by the American Medical Association indicates that fewer Americans can boast a slim waistline.
The belt-loosening trend shows that obesity among Americans hit 18 percent, up from 12 percent in 1991, according to the report.
At the University, the stomachs behind many maroon-and-gold sweat shirts are taking part in the upswing.
A 1995 Boynton Health Service study indicated that 13 percent of University students are overweight, and soon-to-be-released data will show a much higher incidence of campus heftiness.
“Obesity is an issue on campus for folks,” said Dave Golden, a Boynton health specialist.
The nationwide cellulite upswing isn’t isolated to a just a few pockets of states or ethnic groups. Instead, both men and women in every state and from every education level saw their waistlines expand. Several races saw a similar trend, with Hispanics leading the way.
Minnesota ranked 32nd out of 45 states with 15.7 percent of its population classified as overweight. Wisconsin was 22nd with 17.9 percent, which is also the national average.
“People are starting to realize that obesity is a public health threat like tobacco,” said Robert Jeffrey, a University professor of epidemiology.
The national study estimated that 280,000 people die each year from weight-related problems. It is second only to tobacco-related deaths.
As a person’s weight balloons, the chance of dying follows suit.
Some of the long-term illnesses related to obesity are heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, gall-bladder disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
A high-fat diet
In the past decade, the quality of high-school and college students’ diets have declined, leaving many young people with excess pounds, studies indicate.
The main culprits are fast-food chains like Taco Bell and Pizza Hut that have come into high-school lunchrooms in recent years. Schools receive proceeds from the restaurants for allowing them to sell their product in the school’s cafeteria. It’s a handy source of cash for underfunded schools, but at the cost of sacrificing healthy food to students.
Jeffrey said companies like Coca-Cola that put soda machines into every nook and cranny of the University are not helping, either, and have helped triple soft-drink consumption among young people in the past 10 years.
Jeffrey said one would be hard-pressed to find a nutritionist who would advise drinking soda compared to virtually anything else.
“It’s sugar water,” he said. “There’s no nutritional value.”
Reasons for the increase
The medical association study attributed new factors such as urban sprawl and heat for the increase.
University physicians said although urban sprawl and heat might have some effect, the increase in obesity is due to the same reasons since the beginning of time: lack of exercise and not eating right.
Obesity levels are rising even though the average adult consumes fewer fatty foods, pointing to the lack of exercise as the main cause in weight gain.
“A big piece of it is physical activity,” said Scott Crow, a University associate professor of psychiatry. “Day to day, people don’t exert themselves as much as they used to.”
However, the solution is not to drop large amounts of weight right away, Crow said.
“Modest decreases in weight can have a big impact on heart disease and other illnesses,” he said.
Defining obesity
Nationally, obesity is defined by the much-contested Body Mass Index.
“The biggest problem with BMI is that it only measures height and weight to determine whether someone is fat,” Golden said.
He also said body fat can be measured in better ways, such as pinch tests or visiting a nutritionist for an evaluation.
Crow said the BMI is highly inaccurate under two circumstances.
First, the BMI skews when a person has a lot of muscle mass, so a person could be classified as obese even though they might be in excellent physical shape.
According to the index, many professional athletes like Baltimore Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. would be considered obese.
Secondly, a person in extremely poor shape with little muscle mass could be classified as healthy.
But even with its flaws, Crow said the BMI can serve as a rough estimate of a person’s health risks.

Craig Gustafson covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected]