Bloated hype aside, it’s still a crisis

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Esther Cepeda
Sunday, January 22, 2012
— Friends, don’t believe the hype. Despite well-intentioned headlines proclaiming that the obesity crisis has finally leveled off, we can’t yet say “mission accomplished.”

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it is true that obesity rates in 2010—35.7 percent of all U.S. adults—were not significantly different from 2008, when 33.7 percent of the adult population had a body mass index of 30 or higher.

But even leaving aside the large increase from 2000, when only 30.5 percent were obese, let this sink in: The percentage in the latest survey is still higher than it has ever been and represents about 78 million adults suffering from a largely preventable life-threatening disease.

Those two upward-leaning points illuminate the painful realities about how the obesity epidemic continues to overtake our country, especially among children, minorities and the poor. Even though, on average, adult occurrences of obesity are no longer skyrocketing, men, teenage boys, and black and Mexican-American women are gaining weight faster than ever before.

“Averages are tricky—the racial and ethnic disparities in these trends, along with income, are also important factors,” said Jeff Levi, the executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, the nonprofit organization that puts out the annual “F as in Fat” American obesity report that last summer noted the disparities by state and by income levels.

“In our analysis of 2010 data, more than 33 percent of adults who earned less than $15,000 per year were obese compared with 24.6 percent of those who earned at least $50,000 per year,” Levi told me. His study also revealed that almost 33 percent of adults who didn’t graduate from high school are obese, compared with 21.5 percent of those who graduated from college.

“Washington, D.C., is a great example of how averages can obscure inequalities. It has the second-lowest obesity rate in the country, but when you break it down by ward, you see tremendous differences because of the disparities in wealth and income, sometimes that (unrealistically) balances things out.”

Added Patrick M. O’Neil, director of the Weight Management Center at the Medical University of South Carolina and president of the Obesity Society: “It’s no time to break out in a chorus of ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’ It’s absolutely premature to think we’ve turned a corner on this. The news story, to me, is that things are at least as bad as they’ve been.”

Indeed, for all the “hey, the obesity problem isn’t as awful as we thought” news coverage, we’ve still got a massive crisis on our hands. When you consider that 69 percent of all adults and one in three children in the country were overweight or obese in 2010—now is the time to double-down on how we prevent and control obesity, and how we interpret the results of those efforts.

“We should not be breathing a sigh of relief and need to be careful to not make too many conclusions, either positive or negative,” Levi said. “We’ve seen a huge change in social attitudes and policies but it’s going to be a long time until we see that on a population level. It takes a long time to make an impact.”

If anything has come out of this latest report on our country’s continually expanding girth, it’s a fear that the recent efforts put into educating the public about this threat to the nation’s health have been for naught.

“Changing such behaviors does take quite a while—it’s a little bit like turning an aircraft carrier,” said O’Neil. “We need to adopt a really different kind of time frame for measuring population-based programs because it’s one thing to talk about one study with one intervention and control groups and such, but if you’re looking at a population, it’s certainly unrealistic to expect the same results in the same time frame. Still, it would be a mistake to not do anything until we are certain it would have a population-level impact.”

These not-soaring-as-fast-as-before numbers tell the story of a country just in the beginning stages of understanding a deadly epidemic that has resulted in 40 years of unabated weight gain and associated diseases. The slimming of America is off to, at best, a slow start—and we have a very long way to go.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 7:16 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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