EDITOR's NOTE: Dr. Michelle Cardel, PhD, RD is the Gainesville Lunch Out Blog resident expert on all important food information that is healthy, smart, and good for your body, mind, stomach and waistline. Dr. MC shares smart food advice with us on a regular basis and looks forward to answering, discussing any food questions you might have.
As an obesity and nutrition scientist, I was disappointed to see the latest reports of obesity prevalence in the U.S. in adults and youth in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is neither great nor surprising, and it is clear that all efforts (including mine) to put a stop to the obesity epidemic are having little effect. Overall, the studies show that 38 percent of adults and 17percent of children and adolescentsin the U.S. are medically defined as obese. People with obesity are more likely to have type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and even some cancers (including endometrium, breast, kidney, colorectal, pancreas, esophagus, ovaries, gallbladder, thyroid, and possibly prostate).
The study in adults looked at data from 2013-2014 in 5,455 adults who participated in a national survey. The results were grim â€“ more than 1 in 3 men are obese (medically defined as having a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30), with 5.5 percent considered morbidly obese (BMI greater than 40). In women, over 40 percent are obese and almost 10 percent are morbidly obese. These numbers have not changed much since 2005 in men but have increased slightly in women. Individuals with education beyond high school, non-Hispanic whites and Asians, and 20-39 year olds were significantly less likely to be obese.
The study in youth included data on 7,017 children and adolescents from 2011-2014. 17 percent of kids are obese (medically defined as a BMI higher than the 95th percentile of kids the same age and sex) and 5.8 percent have extreme obesity (medically defined as a BMI higher than the 120th percentile of kids the same age and sex). When broken down by age group, 8.9 percent of 2-5 year olds are obese and 1.7 percent has extreme obesity. In 6-11 year olds, 17.5 percent are obese and 5.6 percent have severe obesity. In teenagers (12-19 year olds), the numbers were the most worrisome with one in five considered to be obese and 7.8 percent with extreme obesity.
There has been a great deal of support from The White House, government agencies, foundations, professional organizations, and industries to conduct research, implement prevention and intervention programs, and to create new drugs and devices. Communities, advocacy groups, schools, insurance programs, and foundations have fought to change food policy guidelines and have come together in an attempt to increase physical activity as well as access and consumption of healthy foods. In all likelihood, the obesity epidemic would be much worse without these collaborative efforts (though it is impossible to really know). As proud as I am of all of these entities coming together, the scientifically important work that my colleagues from across the globe have been conducting, and the steps that I have attempted to take to combat the obesity epidemic, the numbers reported here do not show much success.
When I start to get discouraged, I try to think about the global fight against tobacco and the decades upon decades of work, education, and advocacy that were accomplished, and how it eventually took changing social norms for real change to occur. Though tobacco use is very different than the complexities of obesity that are a result of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors, it is time to really start thinking out of the box and trying a different approach to obesity prevention and treatment using previously successful models of change (i.e., tobacco, recycling, seat belt use) as inspiration. Perhaps it is also time for our society to stop blaming the food and restaurant industries for our obesogenic environment and bring together interdisciplinary teams of scientists, the medical community, public health officials, and the food industry to start working on ways to put a stop to the obesity epidemic.