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Obesity No Longer Just a US Problem - 2003-08-28

U.S. health officials say there is a new epidemic; it's called obesity. The World Health Organization says the problem is global. Obesity is linked to a number of serious health problems, such as cancer, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. As diets higher in fat and sugar become more widely available around the globe, fighting fat is not just a U.S. problem.

Visitors to the United States may be forgiven if they leave thinking that many Americans are fat. The 2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that nearly two-thirds of Americans over the age of 20 are overweight, and more than 30 percent are obese.

The American Obesity Association says these percentages translate into approximately 127 million American adults who are overweight, 60 million who are obese and nine million who are severely obese.

Why are so many Americans overweight? Barbara Rolls, from Pennsylvania State University, says part of the problem is the American diet.

"We have a huge variety of foods that are inexpensive," she said. "They're readily available. They're high in fat, high in energy density, and they're in huge portions."

A popular term used to describe larger portions at fast food restaurants - "super-sizing" - can also refer to individual food items. Jeff Prince, vice president of the American Institute for Cancer Research, says the croissant, the quesadilla and the bagel were all imported foods that grew larger in size and number of calories, after they were introduced into the American diet.

"Clearly, when foreign foods get Americanized, they get much bigger, and presumably, so do the Americans that [who] eat them," said Jeff Prince.

Dietitian Jackie Newgent says too much of a good thing is bad for health.

She says American fast food giants are making inroads into other countries around the world. "It's unfortunate that, for instance, the Asian diet and the European diets, they may have started as healthier diets, but they are becoming more Americanized, which actually means they are going to get a little bit more saturated fat, and likely more trans-fat. That is definitely a trend," she said.

The World Health Organization calls obesity an escalating global epidemic that it has dubbed "globesity."

WHO statistics say the number of obese adults worldwide jumped from 200 million to 300 million, between 1995 and 2000. The health organization also points to the rise in childhood obesity, estimating that more than 17.5 million children under the age of five are overweight around the world.

In China, for instance, the overall obesity rate is low, but obesity rates reach almost 20 percent in some cities, where American fast food chains are thriving. WHO scientist Chizuru Nishida says obesity is rising in places where there was not thought to be a problem.

"Many people still think obesity problems and its related chronic diseases are the problems of the rich people and developed countries, but it's no longer so," said Chizuru Nishida. "We're seeing the growing problems in the developing countries, in the urban areas. So, we will see undernourished children and overweight mothers, even in the same household."

Dr. Nishida says it is in the urban areas in all countries where people eat foods high in sugar and fat. She says this consumption is paired with less physical activity.

"It's not only exercise, per se, but even the everyday life, they're moving the body a lot less than previously doing the housework or even going to work," she said. "And, there's public transportation."

Penn State's Professor Rolls says, in the United States, obesity has become an urgent and critical public health issue.

"We, as a nation, are really in the midst of just about the worst epidemic that we have ever seen," said Barbara Rolls. "The situation is dire. You just need to go out on the streets and look around you, and you can understand how bad things are."

This report part of VOA's series on World Health