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Obesity Trending Towards a Global Epidemic

  • Carol Pearson

There is a global epidemic, a pandemic, of overweight and obese people, adults as well as children. Obesity is no longer a disease afflicting wealthy nations.

It's well known that obesity is a major problem in the United States. But it is not just an American problem.

"Right now we can describe it as an epidemic. It's not only in the industrial countries anymore," says Dr. Joxiel.

Dr. Joxiel Garcia is the deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization, a regional UN office of the World Health Organization. He says the well-documented trend toward obesity in the United States is something public health officials now see in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in Europe, Asia and Africa.

The reasons are both simple and complex according to Dr. Arthur Frank, Director of the George Washington University Weight Management Program in Washington, DC.

According to Dr. Frank, "When you put people in a world of sufficient amount of food, and you make their world convenient, and you eliminate the obligation to work, physically work, there's a natural predisposition for people to increase their food consumption and to decrease their activity, so they will gain weight."

Dr. Frank says we can also blame our ancestors. "When you put people in a world of insufficient food, evolutionary survivors are going to be those people who are good at food acquisition and food consumption and in developing ways of storing food, storing calories under the assumption that there is not going to be enough next week," says Dr. Frank.

Dr. Frank says modern humans retain the ability to maximize calories even if we don't need to. In both rich and poor countries, the obese include the rich and the poor. And, Dr. Joxiel Garcia says, this is due to the decreased cost of high-calorie food.

"It is sometimes more costly to eat fruits and items that are good for us. Meanwhile, fast foods and other kind of high fat and high sugar intakes are very easy and accessible for kids and for teenagers," says Dr. Joxiel.

Obesity causes and complicates many serious diseases, but it can also kill by itself. In the United States, more than 400,000 people die each year because of obesity. Obesity also has economic costs. Worldwide, it costs close to $1 trillion a year in lost productivity according to the World Health Organization.

Obesity can be controlled by increasing exercise and decreasing calorie consumption, but Dr. Frank says eating is not always a matter of choice.

"What we've come to realize in the last decade or so is that large parts of eating are controlled by brain signals and only a small part of eating is willful behavior," says Dr. Frank.

Dr. Garcia says preventing and managing obesity has to involve nutrition education, the food industry, governments, schools and transportation systems so everyone can get nutritious food and enough exercise. Otherwise, he says, in developed countries, obesity will overtake cancer as the leading cause of death.

"The most important thing is that people have to get involved. Families have to get involved. This is not an issue that is affecting someone else. It is an issue that is affecting all of us," says Dr. Garcia.

Getting families involved is something the Texas legislature intends to do. Texas lawmakers have proposed a law that would require all public school children to be weighed and the results sent to their parents with their report cards.

State Senator Leticia Van de Putte says she proposed the law because parents need to acknowledge their children's weight problems.

"While it seems tough, we are trying to save kids' lives. The data shows us that this generation of children will predecease their parents because of their health status," says senator Van de Putte.

Tamatha Hamblin says if she had had more information on preventing obesity, her 12-year-old daughter might not be 45 kilos overweight.