Obesity: An Epidemic of Epic Proportions

Kenji Sugahara

On a recent trip to Costco, my suspcions were confirmed- most Oregonians are fat. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 21% of Oregonians are considered obese. If you include individuals who are considered overweight, the figure jumps to 60% of the population. The Portland Tribune says we are the "fattest state west of the rockies."

As a nation, we are eating too much.

In 1970, Americans ate an average of 1,497 pounds of food per year. In 2000, Americans ate an average of 1,775 pounds of food. (1) Since 1980, obesity among adults has doubled (2); among adolescents it has tripled. (3) Puget Sound ferries have increased the width of their seats from 18 to 20 inches, while an ambulance company in Colorado retrofitted its vehicles with winches and plus sized compartments to accommodate patients up to a half a ton. (4)

A Kaiser Permanente study revealed that individuals considered obese used 39 percent more health care resources and 100 percent more pharmaceuticals than those who are not obese. Inpatient hospital stays were also 40 percent longer. (7) Obesity is contributing directly to higher healthcare costs.

Factors blamed for obesity include high consumption of fast food, sedentary lifestyles (5), too-large portions and decreasing physical education programs in schools. (6) As an aside, I find the inverse relationship between restaurant prices and portion size fascinating. When you pay more (e.g. a higher end restaurant), portion sizes are likely to be smaller. In addition, portion sizes in the US are obscene compared to those in other countries. On a recent trip to Japan, I found that a venti coffee at Starbucks in Tokyo was the same size as a small coffee in the US. People can blame that on high food prices in Japan, but the same is true for Europe.

The Oregon Department of Human Services, the agency charged with the mission of "helping people to become independent, healthy and safe" needs to set the bar for healthy living. Employees should be looking at themselves, just as doctors have looked at themselves and started changing their own lifestyles. Doctors laughed at the American Medical Association annual meeting when one of their own stood up to admit his girth, but the subject was serious: physicians tackling the nation's obesity epidemic by addressing their own weight problems. (8)

How do we improve our situation? Take the following to heart: when inputs exceed outputs, you get fat. If outputs exceed inputs, you lose weight. Diets alone will not work- portion control helps. People need to introduce physical activity into their daily regimen- the U.S. Surgeon General’s advice is to exercise 30 minutes a day, five days a week. People can no longer use "I don't have enough time" as an excuse to shirk physical fitness. You make time. Other suggestions include:

• Set a healthy example for children through your own healthy eating habits.
• Encourage children to enroll in daily physical-education classes
• Reduce sedentary TV-watching time, which research also associates with unhealthy snacking.
• Stock vending machines with fruit, vegetables and low-fat milk instead of candy bars, cookies and chips.
• Create more workplace activity.
• Promote designated routes where children can safety walk or bicycle to and from schools and parks. (9)

Check out the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports website for informative links on how to increase your physical fitness. (Yes, this is hosted off of my own site.)

(1) Source: CDC
(2) 14.5 percent to 30.9 percent
(3) 5 percent to 15 percent
(4) Source: National Geographic, Aug. 2004
(5) 89 percent of our travel is by automobile
(6) 42 percent of high school students participated in PE in 1991. In 2000: 32 percent
(7) Portland Business Journal, June 27, 2003
(8) Red Nova, June 15, 2004
(9) Portland Tribune, March 4, 2003

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