COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

What we donít know about obesity

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of commentaries on the issues of health care that will have major funding impact on the economy for 2013. The topics will include senior care, obesity and universal medical insurance.

The headline of an Associated Press release was published about the same time that The Economist featured a comprehensive study on obesity in America. Media coverage about the crisis in dangerous weight increase tells us the obvious of kids drinking sugary soft drinks and adults gorging on fast food diets.

These two reports go beyond the obvious to reveal challenging underlying reasons for the fattening of America and its impact on society, the economy and the cost of health care.

The twin epidemics of overweight -- heart disease and diabetes -- get most of the attention, notes the AP reporter, but few Americans realize the links to other health disorders.

Did you know obesity can cause infertility? Other symptoms relate to cancer, arthritis, sleep apnea and asthma. Dropping pounds often relieve these conditions if only the patient can face-up to dieting and better choices of healthy food. It’s a challenge to overcome all the hype by fast-food vendors and the human craving for sweets. We have all been there.

The irony is that studies on obesity found that half of the people surveyed think their weight is just about right. Only 12 percent of parents considered their children overweight. Government studies reveal that two-thirds of adults and one-third of children and teens are obese. It appears that denial plays a big part in self-assessment.

Persuading children (and adults) to eat vegetables doesn’t rank high on the list of global priorities. However many other rich countries are not hooked on fast food and consequently have lower rates of obesity. The Economist cites a World Health Organization’s observation that Swiss women are the slimmest while French women rate 15 percent obese and their men folk ramp up to 24 percent.

The problem isn’t restricted to the rich world. Areas of the Pacific islands, Mexico and Brazil are beginning to rank as high as the United States on the obesity scale. Not long ago there were fears that the growing global population had too little to eat. Despite that fear, since 1980 the world obesity rate has doubled.

Pharmaceuticals have poured billions of dollars into research to combat obesity. Pfizer’s Lipitor is best known for reducing cholesterol, a major side effect of diet and overweight. Insulin has saved millions of victims of diabetes, a disease so closely related to obesity.

Other rich countries offer free medications and regular check-ups for diabetes and high cholesterol as a cost savings to avoid later medical treatment. It’s a form of preventative medicine, something the U.S. medical insurance companies have been slow to adopt.

The cost is high for treating obesity-related diseases. Treatments are readily available but reversing the underlying cause is the problem. The Economist blames the food companies for the rise of flab. However, we know food and drink companies have a duty to their stockholders to make money. Unhealthy products are profitable, but make people fatter. The specter of government regulation doesn’t seem to deter mass marketing of fatty foods and sugary drinks.

High-calorie food products have increased 92 percent worldwide in the last decade. It’s now a $2.2 trillion industry. Concurrently, sales of soft drinks have doubled to $532 billion. A global chart comparing consumption reveals that China ranks one-half and Mexico one-fourth of soft drinks guzzled by Americans.

According to The Economist report, the effort to restrain the use of products that contribute to obesity is limited. There is little agreement on how to define healthy food or even junky food. An example is recognition that a deep-fried Oreo, the cannonball of fat and sugar, will not doom the consumer if eaten only occasionally.

Authorities are weighing in (no pun intended) on how to get the American public to eat less and exercise more. There’s no easy answer without creating a nanny state. Vocal opponents think government has no business telling people what to eat and how to move, The Economist reports. That’s an issue to chew on.

Ford is a freelance writer located in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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