Half of Americans will be obese in 2030 according to one of four recently published studies about obesity in the medical journal The Lancet. The main culprits are overeating and a lack of exercise; in other words, the obesity epidemic can be attributed to some extent to our modern way of life, with food (especially processed and prepared) readily available and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.
Currently, about 32 percent of men and 35 percent of women in the US are obese. Obesity is due to replace tobacco as the “single most important preventable cause of chronic non-communicable diseases,” notes Reuters,and it’s projected to cause an extra 7.8 million cases of diabetes, 6.8 million cases of heart disease and stroke, and 539,000 cases of cancer. Other health problems stemming from obesity include osteoarthritis and high blood pressure.
Obesity rates are also on the rise in Britain: By 2030, 41-48 percent of men and 35-43 percent of women in the UK will be obese. Currently, 26 percent of both sexes are. Obesity pays a huge toll on the healthcare costs. In the US, health costs for problems associated with obesity will increase by 2.6 percent or $66 billion per year and by 2 percent, or £2 billion per year, in the UK. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times points out that money spent on obesity-related problems in the US could increase 13 to 16 percent over 20 years.
Moreover, while the West is definitely the place where the obesity epidemic is well underway, obesity is “no longer just a Western problem,” says Majid Ezzati, a professor of public health at Imperial College London. Around the world, around 1.5 billion adults are overweight. A further 0.5 billion are obese, with 170 million children classified as overweight or obese. People are the heaviest in the Pacific Islands, such as American Samoa. In the industrialized world, people in the US are heaviest and those in Japan the slimmest.
Boyd Swinburn and Gary Sacks of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, go so far as to speak of a “global obesity pandemic “due to “increased supply of cheap, tasty, energy-dense food, improved food distribution and marketing, and the strong economic forces driving consumption and growth.” In another paper, Steven Gortmaker at the Harvard School of Public Health and his colleagues call for the government to step in and create policies to fight obesity including “taxes on unhealthy food and drink (such as sugar sweetened beverages) and restrictions on food and beverage TV advertising to children.”
It’s a gloomy prognosis any way you look at it. The Los Angeles Times attempts a sanguine view, pointing out how small changes in lifestyle could add up to a big difference:
Let’s say people started watching what they ate and maybe exercised a little, enough so that the population overall dropped its body mass index by 1%–that’s roughly two pounds for a 200-pound adult. That could prevent 2 million to 2.4 million cases of diabetes, 73,000 to 127,000 cases of cancer and 1.4 million to 1.7 million cases of heart disease and stroke.
The question remains, how do we get people — including ourselves — to make those small changes to diet and lifestyle? How do we teach children to reach for apples and not French fries? Given that obesity rates seem only to rise, can and should the government step in with policies such as Gortmaker describes, against an outcry about “stepping on people’s personal rights to eat and drink and exercise, or not, as they please”?
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