Dr. Ann Rogers could list 100 reasons why new numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics show that rates of obesity have increased by at least 30 percent in both adults and children the past 15 years.
As director of Penn State's Surgical Weight Loss Program, she sees, hears and experiences those reasons each time she interacts with adults who come through her clinic.
Lack of cooking skills, easy access to junk food, ridiculous portion sizes, a sedentary yet hectic lifestyle… she could go on and on.
“It's all bad news and this is not going away,” she said. “The message has to be repeated over and over until people start to understand that this is a serious health issue.”
Those people include everyone from the individual who doesn't even realize he or she is obese to policy makers who excluded treatment for obesity from the Affordable Care Act's list of essential health benefits.
“All these smart people at the top are not thinking of it as a treatable disease,” Rogers said. “It is something that can be changed.”
Blacks and Hispanics are even more likely to struggle with obesity, but Rogers said no one knows exactly why. Some of it may be food choices, but there may be a genetic component as well.
She said as more of the population becomes not only overweight but obese, people may not see their weight as anything out of the ordinary. Nor may they realize the serious health consequences of what many still think of as a purely cosmetic issue.
“Things are happening on the inside that are really dangerous and could shorten your life,” she said. “You can make a significant difference by just losing 10 percent of your body weight.”
Even more frightening is the trend toward childhood obesity. “This is their future. They are our future,” she said. “They are children, and all they know is what is provided to them.”
Dr. Jennifer Kraschnewski, executive director of Penn State PRO Wellness, agreed that adults have tremendous influence over whether the children in their lives eat a healthy diet and get enough physical activity – two of the best ways to prevent weight problems.
“It's important to think about what is brought into the home,” she said, explaining that food choices contribute more than physical activity to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. “Ensuring that children have access to healthy foods and decreased access to unhealthy foods is key.”
Kraschnewski said good data exists to show that policy changes can help. She gives the example of communities that imposed a soda tax and saw not only decreased soda consumption but also increased sales of milk and water.
“We aren’t winning the battle against this epidemic, so we need to work to find societal-level changes that can help people make good decisions,” she said.
While waiting for that to happen, she encourages parents and teachers to peel children away from their screens and find ways to incorporate even small amounts of physical activity into their daily routines.
“We need to inform people and help them make healthier decisions,” she said. “The way things are headed, we need to take all of this very seriously.”
- Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015–2016 – National Center for Health Statistics
- Obesity and depression have role in excessive daytime sleepiness
- Weight counseling decreases despite rise in obesity
The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.
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