Silver Lining Behind Obesity Clouds
By Ken Walker-
Obesity remains a problem in West Virginia and a dozen other states, according to a story on the most recent annual study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Five years ago, a CDC report on the Huntington area’s nation-leading problems with obesity and its related diseases prompted grassroots action, as well as a visit by noted British chef Jamie Oliver.
While the steps that followed Oliver’s highly-publicized visit are encouraging, it is disheartening to read that West Virginia is among those states whose obesity rate remains above 30 percent.
A National Problem
Ironically, Colorado (where we lived in the 1980s) checked in as the lowest state with a rate of less than 21 percent. Yet, one of every five Colorodans registering a body mass index (BMI) reading above 30 illustrates the severity of the situation nationwide.
Indeed, I remember our vacation there two years ago, when we noticed a healthy percentage of people waddling down the street. They belied Colorado’s healthy image as an outdoors, hiking and skiing mecca.
Answers to this problem don’t come easily, but one observation that is particularly relevant was this comment from Dr. George Bray of Louisiana State University.
“When you have a limited income, you have to buy foods that are cheap,” the obesity researcher says. “And foods that are cheap tend to have a lot of sugar and salt and fat.”
Little wonder then, that places like West Virginia and national leaders Louisiana and Mississippi (both at 35 percent) struggle with obesity. Yet as Steve Willis and I pointed out in Winning the Food Fight, Uncle Sam persists in subsidizing corn and other substances contributing to obesity while largely ignoring vegetables and fruit.
The week of the CDC’s report in August, more bad news appeared. Columbia University researchers found that more than 18 percent of premature deaths in the U.S. between 1986 and 2006 were associated with excess body mass. That was more than triple a previous estimate.
In its story, the Los Angeles Times reported that the continuing prevalence of obesity has the momentum to reduce the average life expectancy of Americans for years to come. Without changes, “obesity is going to account for a rising share of mortality,” the study’s leader says.
There are all kinds of indicators of the problems this causes. That can be overweight children likely to become overweight adults, a sizable percentage of recruits unable to pass the military physical, or the staggering health care costs landing on taxpayers through Medicaid and Medicare.
Despite such depressing news, we have to celebrate the positives as well. I read about two such signs recently.
One concerns an Associated Press story about fewer school districts promoting junk food. A government survey found that 44 percent banned junk items from vending machines last year, compared to 30 percent six years earlier.
In addition, fewer districts took cuts of soft drink sales, received donations from soda companies and allowed soda company advertising. While this hasn’t reduced the percentage of obese children, over time such steps will pay dividends.
The other encouraging news is the advertising campaign Coca Cola launched earlier this year. Why encouraging? Because the ads stem from the decline in recent years in soft drink consumption.
“We’ve never been more committed to doing our part to help address the issue of obesity,” says a spokesman for Coke. He adds that “2013 is going to be a landmark year in terms of expanding partnerships and efforts to educate consumers about energy balance.”
While soda companies capitalize on consumers who drink too many sugary beverages, we’ll take the help wherever we can get it.