Why We’re Losing the Battle of the Bulge

fat woman measuring her stomach

This past July, the New York Times published an article entitled, “Americans Are Finally Eating Less”. The article explained how, after decades of bad diets and increases in obesity, our country’s eating habits had finally begun to improve and calories consumed were declining for the first time in over 40 years. Obesity rates had stopped rising for adults and children, and had actually decreased for younger children.

Good news, right? Not good enough, apparently. A subsequent Times article (published this month) tells a completely different story. Despite our country’s best efforts to fight obesity, including a major campaign by Michelle Obama, the share of Americans in that category has edged up.

What happened?

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what has caused the apparent reversal in progress. However, logical reasoning might indicate that, if lower calorie consumption has not led to a sustainable decrease in obesity, perhaps calorie consumption is not the problem.

Under the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, chain restaurants are required to publish the calorie content of their meals. The federal government has improved the requirements for school lunches, and many schools have completely removed soda machines from their hallways. Some states (such as Berkeley, California) have even begun to tax sugar-sweetened beverages. While these are certainly steps in the right direction, they don’t mean that Americans are stocking their fridges with fresh fruits and vegetables and replacing soda with water.

Calories are not the villain here. Understanding how to fuel our bodies in a healthy way is the key to fighting obesity and improving overall health. Fried chicken, for example, is packed with salt, saturated fat and unhealthy calories. On the other hand, an avocado is loaded with healthy fats which the body can use. The same is true of almonds and other tree nuts. While high in calories, these foods (when eaten in moderation) provide nutrition and energy that evens out blood sugar levels and fuels the body in a healthy way.

The fact of the matter is: When certain foods become unavailable or restricted, they often gain traction as ‘forbidden fruit’ and become all the more appealing. Restricting or taxing soda doesn’t mean that people acquire a deeper understanding of the health risks associated with it. If people want sweets or fast food, they don’t have to look far to find it. If soda isn’t available, there are plenty of substitutes. The prevalence of “low fat” cookies and desserts only fools people into thinking that they are making a better choice. In fact, this can lead consumers to eat larger portions of these products when, in fact, they generally contain higher levels of sugar to offset the decreased fat. Hardly a good choice.

Where is the data coming from?

These figures are released every two years by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, considered by many to be the gold standard for federal health data. The numbers show that about 38% of American adults were obese in 2013 and 2014, up from 35% in 2011 and 2012. Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said that the trend is “very unfortunate and very disappointing”. She added, “Everybody was hoping that with the decline in sugar and soda consumption, we’d start seeing a leveling off of obesity.”

Some of the most startling numbers were among minorities. From 2011 to 2014, 57% of black women were obese, the highest rate of any demographic. The next highest were Hispanic women (46%) and Hispanic men (39%). Of white women and men, 36% and 34% were obese, respectively.

Obesity and breast cancer

For women, the dangers of obesity (particularly post-menopause) include a possible increased risk for breast cancer. Fat cells produce estrogen and cause inflammation, which is considered a contributor to the development of breast cancer. Maintaining a healthy body weight and exercising regularly can lower the risk.

It seems that, within only six months, our nation’s health situation has deteriorated from promising to discouraging. There are no quick fixes here. Until more Americans become better educated about how what they eat affects their overall health, the fight against obesity will be hard won.

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