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New anti-obesity effort is launched -- but is its approach effective?

Weight of the Nation screenshot
HBO
The HBO documentary 'Weight of the Nation' is part of a new anti-obesity campaign.

Go anywhere that the public gathers — a mall, a sports event, an airport — and you’ll see the sobering evidence of what public health officials have known for more than a decade: We’re in the midst of an obesity-related health crisis. And unless we’re able to reverse current weight trends soon, it’s going to get worse. Much worse.

According to a new government report released Monday, more than 42 percent of American adults will be obese in 2030, up from today’s already gobsmacking figure of 36 percent. And the number of severely obese adults will more than double, from 4.9 percent to 11 percent. (You’re considered obese if you have a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or more; you’re considered severely obese if your BMI is 40 or more.)

“If these forecasts prove accurate, this will further hinder efforts for healthcare cost containment,” the authors of the report conclude.

Indeed, they project that the increase in the obesity rate — just the increase alone — will add $550 billion to U.S. health-care costs by 2030.

The report, which is being published online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, was presented Monday at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s second annual Weight of the Nation conference in Washington, D.C. The conference is also airing a four-part documentary with the same name, which will be broadcast on HBO next week as part of a new nationwide anti-obesity campaign.

The wrong approach?

Obviously, something needs to be done about the obesity epidemic. But what? That’s the billion-dollar question. The new campaign is centered on the eat-fewer-calories-and-exercise-more concept that’s been touted for decades as the answer to maintaining a healthy weight. Not everyone is convinced of this approach, though. A growing number of scientists and other experts believe that not only is the calorie-balance concept ineffective, it may be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

One of the most visible critics of the “energy balance” approach is science writer Gary Taubes. He’s written on this topic extensively over the past decade, including in two heavily researched books, “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It.” On Monday, he wrote yet again on the topic for Newsweek magazine. Although the new anti-obesity campaign is needed, he says, it is doomed to fail.

“The problem is, the solutions this multi-level campaign promotes are the same ones that have been used to fight obesity for a century — and they just haven’t worked,” Taubes writes.

“The conventional wisdom these days — promoted by government, obesity researchers, physicians, and probably your personal trainer as well — is that we get fat because we have too much to eat and not enough reasons to be physically active,” he adds. “But then why were the PC- and Big Mac-deprived Depression-era kids fat? How can we blame the obesity epidemic on gluttony and sloth if we easily find epidemics of obesity throughout the past century in populations that barely had food to survive and had to work hard to earn it?

An alternative theory

As Taubes points out, an alternative theory — one mostly ignored by the medical establishment — has been around for decades:

This theory implicates specific foods — refined sugars and grains — because of their effect on the hormone insulin, which regulates fat accumulation. If this hormonal-defect hypothesis is true, not all calories are created equal, as the conventional wisdom holds. And if it is true, the problem is not only controlling our impulses, but also changing the entire American food economy and rewriting our beliefs about what constitutes a healthy diet.

Oddly, this nutrient-hormone-fat interaction is not particularly controversial. You can find it in medical textbooks as the explanation for why our fat cells get fat. But the anti-obesity establishment doesn’t take the next step: that fat fat cells lead to fat humans. In their eyes, yes, insulin regulates how much fat gets trapped in your fat cells, and the kinds of carbohydrates we eat today pretty much drive up your insulin levels. But, they conclude, while individual cells get fat that way, the reason an entire human gets fat has nothing to do with it. We’re just eating too much.

I’ve been arguing otherwise. And one reason I like this hormonal hypothesis of obesity is that it explains the fat kids in Depression-era New York. As the extreme situation of exceedingly poor populations shows, the problem could not have been that they ate too much, because they didn’t have enough food available. The problem then — as now, across America — was the prevalence of sugars, refined flour, and starches in their diets. These are the cheapest calories, and they can be plenty tasty without a lot of preparation and preservation. And the biology suggests that they are literally fattening — they make us fat, while other foods (fats, proteins, and green leafy vegetables) don’t.

You can read Taubes' article online at Newsweek. You can watch a trailer for the HBO "Weight of the Nation" documentary here.

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Comments (3)

Obesity Epidemic

"Go anywhere -hat the public gathers — a mall, a sports event, an airport — and you’ll see the sobering evidence of what public health officials have known for more than a decade: We’re in the midst of an obesity-related health crisis."

I don't know where Susan Perry goes, but I don't see any evidence of that at all. In fact, I volunteer at a church carnival every September that attracts thousands of people and I sit in a booth selling ride tickets. This is a blue collar parish and I don't see any evidence of an "epidemic", particularly among the kids.

I personally qualify as obese, but it's been coming off recently. But I think that the panic over the epidemic is being spread by those who subscribe to the maxim of "you can never be too rich or too thin." And those people are offended by 20 or 30 pounds of excess weight.

Remember when?

Susan is right on.. I was mentioning to someone recently, that back in the fifties and sixties, there was a reason why someone had a 'beer belly, and otherwise you did not see many people with a fat tummy. Fructose is metabolized the same as alcohol, - it goes to fat, especially in the midsection, which is what leads to to blood sugar problems. Fructose in fruit is balanced by the fiber in the fruit and skin, but I am seeing the use of just strained juice to be a big contributing problem, both refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup have high percentages of fructose as do other refined carbs.

Also, another gripe of mine is that the BMI was never intended to be used with individual persons, but as an index relative to much larger groups. There are very many variations in a person's build out there and relative bone structure. One size certainly does not fit all!!!!

.

Are you kidding?

"I don't know where Susan Perry goes, but I don't see any evidence of that at all. In fact, I volunteer at a church carnival every September that attracts thousands of people and I sit in a booth selling ride tickets. This is a blue collar parish and I don't see any evidence of an "epidemic", particularly among the kids."

Are you kidding? Either you are so used to seeing children and adults in their current forms that this doesn't phase you, but there is a HUGE epidemic amongst children and adults. Yesterday, I went to a department store to purchase some new pajama's for a trip I'm going on this weekend. I've recently lost 81 lbs through - WOW - cutting calories and exercising 5 days a week. Yes, it can happen! Why is it that the racks are full of 1, 2 and 3XL clothes, but trying to find a small or medium is impossible. We went to a baseball game on Sunday --- at least 1 out of 4 kids we saw were pushing their weight limits to the extreme with their parents allowing them to eat all kinds of garbage (ice cream, hot dogs, sausage sandwiches, french fries). This mentality starts in the home, through good discipline and examples being set by parents and such. If you are letting children consume 3 - 4,000 calories a day, through soft drinks, high calorie snacks and full meals with multiple helpings, then allowing them to spend time indoors playing video games, sleeping or doing nothing that is strenuous, HOW are you helping them? You aren't. You are basically digging them an early grave, being forced to deal with such ailments as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Get smart America -- and get moving! This is only going to get worse without taking a good hard look at what we put in our mouths.